Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar and wife indicted on bribery and foreign influence charges

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department on Friday released an indictment towards longtime Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, and his wife, Imelda, charging the pair with bribery and cash laundering associated to their ties with a financial institution in Mexico and an oil and gasoline firm managed by Azerbaijan.

NBC News was first to report that the charges had been coming. The congressman and his wife had been every launched on a $100,000 bond after a primary look in federal court docket in Houston, a DOJ spokesperson mentioned Friday afternoon.

According to the indictment, from 2014 to 2021, the Cuellars allegedly accepted roughly $600,000 in bribes from the 2 foreign entities in trade for the congressman performing official acts.

“The bribe payments were allegedly laundered, pursuant to sham consulting contracts, through a series of front companies and middlemen into shell companies owned by Imelda Cuellar, who performed little to no legitimate work under the contracts,” the DOJ mentioned in an announcement.

“In exchange for the bribes paid by the Azerbaijani oil and gas company, Congressman Cuellar allegedly agreed to use his office to influence U.S. foreign policy in favor of Azerbaijan,” DOJ continued. “In exchange for the bribes paid by the Mexican bank, Congressman Cuellar allegedly agreed to influence legislative activity and to advise and pressure high-ranking U.S. Executive Branch officials regarding measures beneficial to the bank.”

The congressman and his wife are every charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit bribery of a federal official and to have a public official act as an agent of a foreign principal; two counts of bribery of a federal official; two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud; two counts of violating the ban on public officers appearing as brokers of a foreign principal; one rely of conspiracy to commit concealment cash laundering; and 5 counts of cash laundering.

If convicted, they might spend years and even a long time in jail.

In an announcement Friday earlier than the charges had been unsealed, Cuellar denied any wrongdoing, saying that he had “proactively sought legal advice” from the House Ethics Committee, which had issued “more than one written opinion” in regards to the matter. Much of his assertion targeted on his wife.

“I want to be clear that both my wife and I are innocent of these allegations. Everything I have done in Congress has been to serve the people of South Texas,” Cuellar mentioned in his assertion, later including: “The actions I took in Congress were consistent with the actions of many of my colleagues and in the interest of the American people.”

“Imelda and I have been married for 32 years. On top of being an amazing wife and mother, she’s an accomplished businesswoman with two degrees. She spent her career working with banking, tax, and consulting,” he continued. “The allegation that she is anything but qualified and hard working is both wrong and offensive.”

A defiant Cuellar additionally made clear he’ll nonetheless search re-election: “Let me be clear, I’m running for re-election and will win this November.”

A press release from the congressman’s protection attorneys was just like Cuellar’s but additionally famous prosecutors indicted him simply six months earlier than Election Day.

“The government’s decision to move forward with charges so close to the general election — and their decision to execute a search warrant 40 days before his [2022] primary — undermines the electorate and puts a thumb on the scale,” mentioned attorneys Chris Flood and Eric Reed.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., and different high Democratic leaders had endorsed Cuellar’s re-election bid final summer season. In an announcement, Jeffries spokesperson Christie Stephenson known as Cuellar a “valued Member of the House Democratic Caucus,” noting that Cuellar is “entitled to his day in court and the presumption of innocence throughout the legal process.”

In the meantime, Cuellar will step except for his place as the highest Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing the Department of Homeland Security, Stephenson mentioned.

Cuellar’s residence and marketing campaign workplace in Laredo, Texas, were raided in January 2022 as a part of a federal investigation into Azerbaijan and a gaggle of U.S. businessmen who’ve ties to the nation, regulation enforcement mentioned on the time. His workplace had pledged to cooperate with the investigation. In April, Cuellar’s lawyer, Joshua Berman, told some news outlets that federal authorities knowledgeable him he was not the goal of the investigation.

Cuellar is a one-time co-chair of the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus. According to the indictment, in trade for the bribes, Cuellar promised to influence laws associated to Azerbaijan’s battle with neighboring Armenia; insert pro-Azerbaijan language into laws and committee experiences on safety and financial help packages; ship a pro-Azerbaijan speech on the House flooring; and “consult” with Azerbaijan officers about their efforts to foyer the U.S. authorities.

Ahead of the indictment’s launch, Cuellar’s employees had been calling different member workplaces Friday looking for recommendation on the way to deal with the scenario, one supply with data of these calls informed NBC News.

A yr after the raid on his residence — which has not beforehand yielded arrests or charges — Cuellar informed the Texas Tribune: “There has been no wrongdoing on my part. … My focus remains the same from my very first day in office: delivering results for Texans across my district.”

Despite the raid, Cuellar narrowly defeated a progressive challenger, Jessica Cisneros, in his 2022 major and went on to win re-election to his seat that November. He did not face a major challenger this yr and will likely be on the poll this November looking for his eleventh time period in Congress.

Two years in the past, Cuellar simply defeated Republican nominee Cassy Garcia, 57% to 43%. His district grew to become bluer when he picked up components of San Antonio following redistricting. But the indictment will make Cuellar extra susceptible than prior to now; in 2020, Joe Biden received Cuellar’s district over Donald Trump by 7 proportion factors.

Two Republicans will face one another in a runoff election in late May for an opportunity to take on Cuellar within the fall.

“Henry Cuellar does not put Texas first, he puts himself first,” said Delanie Bomar, a spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “If his colleagues truly believe in putting ‘people over politics,’ they will call on him to resign. If not — they are hypocrites whose statements about public service aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.”

Cuellar, 66, a lawyer, is a former customs dealer and Texas secretary of state. A member of the centrist Blue Dogs and New Democrat Coalition, Cuellar was elected to the House in 2004.

He’s the one Democrat left in Congress who opposes abortion rights — a place that has infuriated many in his party.

The Cuellars are the second congressional couple to be charged in a foreign bribery scheme prior to now yr. In September, DOJ charged then-Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and his wife after they allegedly accepted lots of of hundreds of {dollars}, together with gold bars, in return for official acts geared toward enriching three New Jersey businessmen and benefitting the Egyptian authorities. Both Cuellar and Menendez are members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Menendez, who stepped except for main Foreign Relations, has pleaded not guilty. His trial is scheduled to start later this month.

A 3rd lawmaker, New York Republican George Santos, was expelled from the House in December after a scathing ethics report and 23-count federal indictment charging him with crimes reminiscent of wire fraud and cash laundering. Santos additionally has pleaded not responsible.

CORRECTION (May 3, 2024, 4:59 p.m. ET): Due to an modifying error, a earlier model of this text misattributed an announcement. It was from House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries’ spokesperson, Christie Stephenson, not Jeffries himself.

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