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Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar and wife charged with bribery and foreign influence

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Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar and wife charged with bribery and foreign influence

WASHINGTON – The Justice Department on Friday published an accusation against the veteran representative Henry CuellarDemocrat from Texas, and his wife, Imelda, accusing them of bribery and money laundering related to their ties to a bank in Mexico and an oil and gas company controlled by Azerbaijan.

NBC News was the first to report that charges would be filed. The congressman and his wife were each released on $100,000 bail after an initial appearance in federal court in Houston, a Justice Department spokesman said Friday afternoon.

According to the indictment, from 2014 to 2021, the Cuellars allegedly accepted approximately $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 phony consulting contracts, through a series of front companies and intermediaries in shell companies owned by Imelda Cuellar, who performed little or no legitimate work under the contracts,” said the Department of Justice in a statement.

“In exchange for bribes paid by the Azerbaijan oil and gas company, Congressman Cuellar allegedly agreed to use his position to influence United States foreign policy in favor of Azerbaijan,” the Justice Department continued. “In exchange for bribes paid by the Mexican bank, Congressman Cuellar allegedly agreed to influence legislative activity and advise and pressure high-ranking officials of the United States Executive Branch 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 cause a public official to 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 prohibition on public officials acting as agents of a foreign principal; one count of conspiracy to commit covert 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 wrongdoing and said he had “proactively sought legal advice” from the House Ethics Committee, which had issued “more than one written opinion” on the affair. Much of his statement focused on his wife.

“I want to make it clear that both my wife and I are innocent of these accusations. “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 best interest of of the American people.” people.”

“Imelda and I have been married for 32 years. In addition to being an incredible wife and mother, she is an accomplished businesswoman with two degrees. “She spent her career working in banking, taxes and consulting,” she continued. “The accusation that she is not qualified or hard-working is wrong and offensive.”

A defiant Cuéllar also made it clear that he will continue to seek re-election: “Let me be clear, I am running for re-election and I will win this November.”

A statement from the congressman’s defense attorneys was similar to Cuellar’s, but also noted that prosecutors charged him just six months before Election Day.

“The government’s decision to move forward with charges so close to the general election and its decision to execute a search warrant 40 days before its election [2022] primaries, undermines the electorate and puts the 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 bid for re-election last summer. In a statement, Jeffries spokeswoman Christie Stephenson called Cuellar a “valuable member of the House Democratic Caucus,” noting that Cuellar is “entitled to his day in court and to the presumption of innocence throughout the legal process.” .

Meanwhile, Cuellar will leave his position as top Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Department of Homeland Security, Stephenson said.

Cuellar’s home and campaign office in Laredo, Texas, They were raided in January 2022 as part of a federal investigation into Azerbaijan and a group of American businessmen who have ties to the country, officials said at the time. His office had agreed to cooperate with the investigation. In April, Cuellar’s attorney, Joshua Berman, told some media that federal authorities informed him that he was not the subject of the investigation.

Cuellar was co-chair of the Azerbaijan Congressional 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 in the House of Representatives; and “consult” with Azerbaijani officials about their efforts to pressure the U.S. government.

Before the indictment was released, Cuellar’s staff called other member offices on Friday for advice on how to handle the situation, a source with knowledge of those calls told NBC News.

A year after the raid on his home, which had previously led to no arrests or charges, Cuellar told the Texas Tribune: “There has been no wrongdoing on my part. … My focus remains the same since my first day in office: achieving results for Texans across my district.”

Despite the raid, Cuellar narrowly defeated a progressive rival, Jessica Cisneros, in her 2022 primary and won re-election to her seat in November. He did not face a challenger in the primary this year and will be on the November ballot seeking her 11th term in Congress.

Two years ago, Cuellar easily defeated Republican candidate Cassy García, 57% to 43%. Her district turned bluer when she took over parts of San Antonio after redistricting. But the accusation 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 off in a runoff in late May for a chance to take on Cuellar in the fall.

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

Cuellar faces a call to resign from a member of his own party, Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., who said in a publish in X Friday night that “while the bar for a federal indictment is high, trust in our government is low.”

“That’s why indicted officials and candidates should resign or end their campaigns, including Sen. Bob Menendez, Donald Trump and Rep. Henry Cuellar,” said Phillips, who was among the first to ask for Menéndez’s resignation, he continued.

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

He is the only Democrat left in Congress who opposes abortion rights, a position that has He angered many in his party.

The Cuellars are the second congressional couple charged in an international bribery scheme in the last year. In September, the Justice Department accused the then president of Foreign Relations of the Senate, Bob Menéndez, D.N.J., and his wife after they allegedly accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars, including gold bars, in exchange for official acts intended to enrich three New Jersey businessmen and benefit the Egyptian government. Both Cuellar and Menéndez are members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Menéndez, who left the direction of Foreign Relations, has pleaded not guilty. His trial is scheduled to begin later this month.

A third legislator, New York Republican George Santos, was kicked out of the house in December after a scathing ethics report and a 23-count federal indictment accusing him of crimes including wire fraud and money laundering. Santos also pleaded not guilty.

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

This article was originally published in NBCNews.com

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