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

By the time he and his wife were indicted Friday on federal charges of money laundering, bribery and conspiracy, many of his supporters had already moved on from the news that his office was raided by the FBI in January 2022.

By David Martin Davies, Texas Public RadioMay 7, 2024 9:48 am, ,

From Texas Public Radio:

By the time South Texas Congressman Henry Cuellar was indicted Friday on federal charges of money laundering, bribery, and conspiracy, many of his supporters had already moved on from the news that his office was raided by the FBI in January 2022.

Two weeks ago, the city of Laredo recognized Cuellar with its highest honor: the key to the gateway city.

“Today we are here to celebrate the life and service of a son of Laredo,” said Laredo Mayor Victor Trevino.

He added that the honor was overdue for the representative who has delivered for the border city: “[Cuellar] continues to work hard for our community with the most recent legislation allowing for the expedited approval of the World Trade Bridge expansion.”

Cuellar has long served Laredo in elected office. He was the city’s state representative from 1987 to 2001. He won the 28th Congressional District in 2004. He has been reelected nine times.

Cuellar has been criticized by progressives for being too conservative. He’s one of the last anti-abortion Democrats in Congress.

As he accepted the Laredo key honor, Cuellar explained that he has to reflect the many interests in the large district that goes from the Rio Grande to the Alamo in downtown San Antonio.

“It’s a very diversified type of district: Urban, rural, moderate, conservative, liberal. But when you represent those 800,000 people, you got to find that balance,” he said. “At the end of the day, you gotta do what’s right for your district, your state, and your country, and just face the consequences after that.”

Cuellar was charged with representing more than his district. He and his wife Imelda were indicted on charges of bribery, money laundering and conspiring to violate foreign lobbying laws on behalf of the Azerbaijani government and a Mexican bank.

According to the indictment, from 2014 to 2021, the couple accepted nearly $600,000 in bribes from an Azerbaijan-controlled energy company and a bank in Mexico. In exchange, Cuellar agreed to use his office to advance the interests of the country and the bank.

The payments to the couple went through a Texas-based shell company owned by Imelda Cuellar and two of the couple’s children, according to the indictment. That company received payments from the Azerbaijan energy company of $25,000 per month under a “sham contract,” purportedly in exchange for consulting services.

But, according to the indictment, she performed little or no legitimate work.

In August 2014, Cuellar accompanied Azerbaijan’s Ambassador to the U.S. Elin Suleymanov to the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio.

Cuellar told a student reporter that Texas and the former Soviet bloc nation have a lot in common. “Like Baku in Azerbaijan, they’re a big oil and gas state just like the state of Texas,” he said. “In that part of the world, you need to have stability, and that’s what Azerbaijan provides.”

Azerbaijan was looking to Cuellar to sway U.S. foreign policy in its favor over Armenia, also a former Soviet republic. For decades, the two nations have been in a dispute over territory in the Lesser Caucasus.

Cuellar was at one time the co-chair of the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus.

The Department of Justice said the couple surrendered to authorities on Friday and were taken into custody. The congressman released a statement saying he and his wife “are innocent of these allegations.”

While he will take leave as ranking member of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, Cuellar continues to seek re-election.

“It’s almost as though being indicted and running for office doesn’t have quite the same resonance it did 10 or 20 years ago,” said Jon Taylor, a professor of political science and chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“Apparently you can get indicted and run for reelection and or election and possibly win,” he said. “We’ve seen that with other people. We’ve got [Senator] Bob Menendez in New Jersey who’s still going to run. You’ve got a certain Republican presidential presumptive nominee who’s running, who’s been indicted in several places across the U.S.”

Cuellar will face a Republican opponent in November either Jay Furman or Lazaro Garza Jr. They are in the May 28 GOP runoff.

“Republicans may very well decide to dump a lot of money into this race viewing Cuellar as particularly vulnerable, and therefore maybe pick off the seat,” Taylor said.

The Cook Political Report rates this seat “likely Democratic” and not yet competitive at this point. However, national Republicans have targeted this race in recent years as well as other South Texas districts.

So what’s going to be interesting to see is if CD28 is ready to vote for a guy who is far to the right of Henry Cuellar, who has made it a point to maintain himself as a moderate Democrat, middle of the road, blue dog role within the party in the House,” Taylor said.

Former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi surrounded by Democratic lawmakers during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. From left: Former House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Pelosi, Rep. Robert Andrews (D-NJ), Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX), Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD).
Larry Downing / Reuters

After the FBI raided Cuellar’s office in January 2022, House Democratic leadership stood with him as he faced a competitive challenge from progressive Jessica Cisneros.

“Nancy Pelosi and Jim Clyburn were trying to maintain a Democratic majority. They obviously lost it, but they didn’t lose it by much,” Taylor said. “This time, Hakeem Jeffries has said, ‘well, we’re going to let it play out legally. Everybody has a right to a fair trial and the right to their day [in court].'”

Taylor said Democrats should be mindful of how their approach in 2022 may hurt them in 2024.

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