What does Azerbaijan want from Texas politicians?

“It’s very easy to see this influence campaign from Azerbaijan, because it stands out. If Azerbaijan is doing it, a lot of other countries are doing it, and they’re doing it in the same way.”

By Rhonda Fanning & David BrownMay 13, 2024 3:54 pm,

Earlier this month, Democratic U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar of South Texas was indicted on 14 counts relating to payments from Azerbaijan, including bribery, conspiracy, failure to register as a foreign agent and money laundering. This comes after an FBI raid on Cuellar’s home and office in Laredo in 2022.

As Christopher Hooks writes for Texas Monthly, Azerbaijan has long waged an influence campaign in Texas. He joined the Standard with more about what the former Soviet republic wants from politicians in the Lone Star State.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Well, before we go into the larger influence campaign you mentioned, let’s talk about the congressman and his wife, Imelda. What do the feds actually say happened here?

Christopher Hooks: Well, the feds allege that Congressman Henry Cuellar and his wife received effectively $600,000 in bribes from a Mexican bank that was attempting to lobby the Biden administration for relief from money laundering laws.

And also an oil company not named in the indictment but almost certainly Socar, which is the state-owned oil company of Azerbaijan and run in large part by the ruling family of Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan is a very oil-rich country. Socar has a lot of money. And they have offices in Houston and business in the United States, as does Azerbaijan. 

I gather Congressman Cuellar didn’t respond to requests for an interview, though he maintains his innocence and said in a press release “everything [he’s] done in Congress has been to serve the people of South Texas.”

But why Azerbaijan? I mean, there there aren’t many Azerbaijani Americans in Texas. And frankly, the House doesn’t usually weigh in on foreign affairs that often. I’m just sort of wondering what interest a former Soviet republic would have in recruiting a congressman from Texas. 

Well, Henry Cuellar has served on committees in the House that do touch on foreign relations: the Energy Committee, until recently served on the Homeland Security Committee in the House.

But Azerbaijan, over the last 10-15 years, has run a large and well-financed influence campaign in the states to try to win over state legislators, including a lot of people in the Texas House, to pass resolutions and honor the nation of Azerbaijan and its kind of eternal war with the neighboring country of Armenia.

And also to win over members of Congress, many of them members of Congress from Texas, including retired ones like Ted Poe and Ruben Hinojosa and also sitting ones like Sheila Jackson Lee and Henry Cuellar.

Texas politicians for the last 10 or 15 years have been pretty Azerbaijan friendly in a way that is, I think, surprising to a lot of people. 

» ANALYSIS: Can South Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar overcome scandal once again? 

I don’t know what that means, “Azerbaijan friendly,” especially in this context. Are you talking about, like, passing resolutions related to the long-running dispute with Armenia, for example? I mean, in the context of the larger scope of what Congress does, that seems rather small. 

Sure, I mean, it seems small to us. These resolutions and the other kind of symbolic acts that American politicians perform for Azerbaijan are meaningful for the Azerbaijani government, which we have to say is a pretty nasty government. It’s a government that’s been run by a father and his son for the last 30 years. They crush protests; they kill and blackmail journalists. It’s a pretty pure dictatorship. 

And they look to the United States for validation of the regime. And they also wanted to make sure that the United States stays out of the war that they were eventually going to launch with Armenia to reclaim some land that they wanted to get back.

So their influence campaign in the States involved a lot of things that seem pretty minor and insignificant, like getting members of the Texas House and Texas Senate to pass resolutions honoring Azerbaijan for many years.

But it also involved bringing congressmen, including Texas members of Congress, on junkets to Azerbaijan – effectively bribes. Although they could have been legal, it turns out the way that they did this junket in 2013 was not legal. 

But, they bring them to five-star hotels. They give them gifts. They flatter them. And in some cases, including maybe the case of Henry Cuellar, allegedly, they just straight up gave them money.

Did they get very much in return from it? It’s hard to say. But I think it’s important for Texans to take note, because it’s very easy to see this influence campaign from Azerbaijan, because it stands out.

If Azerbaijan is doing it, a lot of other countries are doing it, and they’re doing it in the same way. Oil companies here, billionaires here, are waging their own influence campaigns that are sometimes harder to see. 

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Well, you anticipated what I was going to ask. I mean, if Azerbaijan’s doing this, as the feds seem to believe, I wonder how common it is for foreign governments to court Texas politicians.

And is it possible we’ll see other shoes drop here as the feds continue their investigation of influence peddling? 

We’ll see. The indictments against Henry Cuellar have been a long time coming. The FBI first raided his house in 2022, and I’m not aware of other investigations pending, as far as Azerbaijan goes.

But I do think Americans should know there has been discussion about influence campaigns by large and powerful countries like Russia in the last five to 10 years. This is a very common thing for countries around the world, especially not democratic countries around the world, to do.

In Texas some years ago, the nation of Malaysia, which is also a dictatorship, was caught paying conservative journalists here hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to write unflattering articles about the Malaysian opposition. I think that this is the tip of the iceberg. 

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