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

DOJ charges that the Democratic congressman used his office to influence U.S. policy for Azerbaijan. He and his wife, Imelda Cuellar, are also accused of money laundering.
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WASHINGTON — The Justice Department on Friday released an indictment against longtime Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, and his wife, Imelda, charging the pair with bribery and money laundering related to their ties with a bank in Mexico and an oil and gas company controlled by Azerbaijan.

NBC News was first to report that the charges were coming. The congressman and his wife were each released on a $100,000 bond after a first appearance in federal court in Houston, a DOJ spokesperson said Friday afternoon.

According to the indictment, from 2014 to 2021, the Cuellars allegedly accepted roughly $600,000 in bribes from the two foreign entities in exchange 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 said in a statement.

“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 each 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 officials acting as agents of a foreign principal; one count of conspiracy to commit concealment money laundering; and five counts of money laundering.

If convicted, they could spend years or even decades in prison.

In a statement Friday before the charges were 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” about the matter. Much of his statement focused 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 said in his statement, later adding: “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 also made clear he will still seek re-election: “Let me be clear, I’m running for re-election and will win this November.”

A statement from the congressman's defense attorneys was similar to Cuellar's but also noted prosecutors indicted him just six months before 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," said attorneys Chris Flood and Eric Reed.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., and other top Democratic leaders had endorsed Cuellar's re-election bid last summer. In a statement, Jeffries spokesperson Christie Stephenson called 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 aside from his position as the top Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing the Department of Homeland Security, Stephenson said.

Cuellar’s home and campaign office in Laredo, Texas, were raided in January 2022 as part of a federal investigation into Azerbaijan and a group of U.S. businessmen who have ties to the country, law enforcement said at the time. His office had pledged to cooperate with the investigation. In April, Cuellar's lawyer, Joshua Berman, told some news outlets that federal authorities informed him he was not the target of the investigation.

Cuellar is a one-time co-chair of the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus. According to the indictment, in exchange for the bribes, Cuellar promised to influence legislation related to Azerbaijan's conflict with neighboring Armenia; insert pro-Azerbaijan language into legislation and committee reports on security and economic aid programs; deliver a pro-Azerbaijan speech on the House floor; and "consult" with Azerbaijan officials about their efforts to lobby the U.S. government. 

Ahead of the indictment's release, Cuellar’s staff were calling other member offices Friday seeking advice on how to handle the situation, one source with knowledge of those calls told NBC News.

A year after the raid on his home — which has not previously yielded arrests or charges — Cuellar told 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 primary and went on to win re-election to his seat that November. He didn't face a primary challenger this year and will be on the ballot this November seeking his 11th term in Congress.

Two years ago, Cuellar easily defeated Republican nominee Cassy Garcia, 57% to 43%. His district became bluer when he picked up parts of San Antonio following redistricting. But the indictment will make Cuellar more vulnerable than in the past; in 2020, Joe Biden won Cuellar's district over Donald Trump by 7 percentage points.

Two Republicans will face each other in a runoff election in late May for a chance to take on Cuellar in 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 is facing a call to resign from a member of his own party, Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., who said in a post to X on Friday night that "while the bar for Federal indictment is high, trust in our government is low."

"That’s why office holders and candidates under indictment should resign or end their campaigns, including Sen. Bob Menendez, Donald Trump, & Rep. Henry Cuellar," Phillips, who was among the first to call on Menendez to resign, continued.

Cuellar, 66, a lawyer, is a former customs broker 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 only Democrat left in Congress who opposes abortion rights — a position that has infuriated many in his party.

The Cuellars are the second congressional couple to be charged in a foreign bribery scheme in the past year. In September, DOJ charged then-Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and his wife after they allegedly accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars, including gold bars, in return for official acts aimed at enriching three New Jersey businessmen and benefitting the Egyptian government. Both Cuellar and Menendez are members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Menendez, who stepped aside from leading Foreign Relations, has pleaded not guilty. His trial is scheduled to begin later this month.

A third 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 such as wire fraud and money laundering. Santos also has pleaded not guilty.

CORRECTION (May 3, 2024, 4:59 p.m. ET): Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article misattributed a statement. It was from House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries’ spokesperson, Christie Stephenson, not Jeffries himself.