FBI Raid May Complicate Cuellar’s Bid for Reelection
LAREDO, Texas — Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, is entangled in an FBI investigation stemming from his ties to the Republic of Azerbaijan ahead of a tightly contested March 1 primary election.
It is unclear at this time whether Cuellar and his wife are direct targets of the investigation, and no charges have been filed.
Days after FBI agents raided the nine-term congressman’s Laredo home and campaign headquarters, the unbowed Cuellar debuted a new campaign advertisement to air in the San Antonio and Laredo media markets.
Now, a federal grand jury in Washington, D.C., is beginning to issue subpoenas seeking Cuellar’s records related to companies and advocacy organizations with links to the former Soviet nation.
Cuellar has long been a vocal advocate of Azerbaijan in Congress and serves as co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus.
The affinity came naturally to a lawmaker serving a district deep in Texas’ oil and gas country: Azerbaijan has long been a net energy exporter, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration with crude oil and natural gas production and exports being central to its economy.
Records obtained by Fox News revealed that Cuellar and his wife took part in a trip to both Azerbaijan and Turkey in January 2013 that was sponsored by a private organization called the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians.
Cuellar’s trip to the region had no stated official purpose, and his reported expenses included meals, lodging and a museum tour, according to the House travel disclosure form he filed after his return to the U.S.
Cuellar’s Deputy Chief of Staff Amy Travieso took another sponsored trip to Azerbaijan in May 2013 to meet with state oil company officials in order to discuss forthcoming projects and to inform the congressman of its requests for foreign aid. By September 2013, Cuellar, alongside other lawmakers, sponsored a congressional resolution in support of Azerbaijan’s lucrative Southern Gas Corridor project.
The project was conceived by European Commission officials in November 2008 as a means of reducing the European Union’s dependency on imported Russian energy sources. The main energy source of the Southern Gas Corridor is the Shah Deniz gas field located within the Caspian Sea and the pipeline runs all the way from Baku, Azerbaijan, to Brindisi, Italy.
Of course, lawmakers going on foreign junkets is nothing new, particularly if, like Cuellar, they’ve had a hand in international affairs throughout their public careers.
During his 14 years in the Texas House of Representatives, he not only held leadership positions on the state House Appropriations, Higher Education and Calendar Committees, he also served on several national legislative committees dealing with state budgets, the U.S.-Mexico border and international trade.
By the time he took the foreign trip now under scrutiny, Cuellar had been in Congress for nearly a decade, and was serving on the House Appropriations Committee, and the subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs.
A year later his personal popularity, coupled with his spirit of bipartisanship and willingness to work the aisle to get things done, was so great that the Texas GOP couldn’t find a Republican to run against him.
In the current Congress, Cuellar serves on the House Appropriations, Defense, Agriculture, and Homeland Security Committees, and he is also a member of the New Democrat Coalition and the Blue Dog Coalition.
And he was far from the only lawmaker to take such a trip to the region. In fact, in 2015 a total of 10 lawmakers and 32 aides attended a two-day conference paid for through the council by the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic.
The lawmakers on the trip included four of Cueller’s Texas colleagues: Democratic Reps. Rubén Hinojosa and Sheila Jackson Lee, and Republican Reps. Ted Poe and Steve Stockman.
Also on the trip were Reps. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., Danny Davis, D-Ill., Leonard Lance, R-N.J., Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., and Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y.
But this time the trip came under the scrutiny of the House Ethics Committee. After an investigation, the committee cleared all of the House members of any wrongdoing, but found that a number of third parties had either lied or withheld information about how the trip was funded.
In a joint statement, Reps. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., and Linda Sánchez, D-Calif., chairman and ranking member of the committee, respectively, said the investigation had found “no evidence that members and staff who participated in the trip knowingly violated any House rule, law, regulation or the standard of conduct.”
But the panel did find evidence, according to a statement released Friday, that a number of third parties allegedly lied or withheld information about the trip, and the committee is referring that matter to the Department of Justice.
“Since the House travelers acted in good faith, and the evidence was inconclusive as to the true source of the funds for the travel, the committee has concluded that the trips did not constitute an impermissible gift or travel, and decided that no further action is required regarding the House travelers’ acceptance of travel expenses.”
The Ethics Committee did make the members and staff return the gifts they received, which included rugs and crystal tea sets.
Three years later, an FBI investigation into the same trip ended with the Turquoise Council’s president pleading guilty to lying to the ethics panel when he stated no foreign money was used to pay for the lawmakers’ trip.
It was then that he admitted the trip was in fact paid for by the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic, the nation’s wholly state-owned oil and gas company, in violation of House travel regulations.
The council’s website is now defunct and the domain name is available for auction on GoDaddy. Similarly, the website of the Turkic American Alliance appears to be defunct but is still operational, although its phone number has been disconnected and the pages for its board of directors and executive board are vacant.
Subpoenas were issued to Cuellar, his wife and at least one staffer in relation to records of the congressman’s association with certain business leaders and foreign officials, according to ABC News. The subpoenas are also seeking records regarding any favors or services Cuellar may have provided to foreign entities.
Cuellar’s office released a written statement stating he is fully cooperating with the investigation. When asked for comment, Cuellar’s press secretary Dana Youngentob referred The Well News to his previous statement and declined to provide any further comments.
“We are aware of the news regarding Congressman Cuellar and the active FBI investigation,” Democrat Jessica Cisneros, one of Cuellar’s primary challengers, said in a written statement. “We are closely watching as this develops. In the meantime, we are focused on our campaign to deliver change to South Texas families and will not be making any additional comments at this time.”
Cisneros came within 4 percentage points of unseating Cuellar in the 2020 Democratic primary for Texas’ 28th Congressional District, as previously reported in The Well News. In contrast to the moderate Cuellar — whom conservative groups like the Texas Farm Bureau have been willing to endorse in the past — Cisneros represents the party’s liberal wing and has been endorsed by a number of high-profile congressional Democrats, such as Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
Cisneros — an immigration attorney — is campaigning on a platform consisting of immigration reform, Medicare For All, campaign finance reform, a federal minimum wage increase and gun control proposals, among other initiatives. She joins Cuellar on the ballot alongside Tannya Benavides — an educator and community organizer — who has campaigned on protections for seasonal migrant workers, Medicare expansion, universal rent control and access to reliable water infrastructure.
Meanwhile, Cuellar’s campaign centers on touting his congressional achievements while underscoring his willingness to work across the aisle. He is vice chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, authored the Prosperous and Secure Neighbor Alliance Act to combat drug trafficking and weapons smuggling within border communities and has a track record of bolstering initiatives that support U.S. border patrol operations.
“I know the American dream can grow here with good schools, affordable health care and better pay,” Cuellar said in his reelection advertisement. “This land gave my family a chance. That’s why I’ll never stop fighting for South Texas.”
Reece can be reached at [email protected]