Charges Against a Congressman Lay Bare Foreign Government Influence Attempts



As tensions flared over disputed territory in the Caucasus region in the summer of 2020, Azerbaijan’s squadron of high-priced Washington lobbyists scrambled to pin the blame on neighboring Armenia and highlight its connections to Russia.

Unbeknown to members of Congress, Azerbaijan had an inside man who was working closely with the Azerbaijani ambassador to Washington at the time on a parallel line of attack, according to text messages released by federal prosecutors.

Representative Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat now charged with accepting bribes and acting as a foreign agent in a yearslong scheme, indicated in a text that he planned a legislative maneuver to try to strip funding from Armenia because it hosted Russian military bases.

Azerbaijan’s ambassador responded enthusiastically.

“Your amendment is more timely than ever,” the ambassador, Elin Suleymanov, wrote to Mr. Cuellar. “It is all about Russian presence there,” added Mr. Suleymanov, who referred to the congressman as “Boss.”

Mr. Cuellar’s legislative gambit did not go far. But by the time of the text exchange, his family had accepted at least $360,000 from Azerbaijani government-controlled companies since December 2014, according to a federal indictment unsealed in Houston on Friday.

The 54-page indictment highlights the importance of U.S. policymaking to foreign interests, and the lengths to which they go to try to shape it to their advantage, notwithstanding high risks and sometimes questionable results.

The indictment accuses Mr. Cuellar, 68, and his wife, Imelda, 67, of accepting bribes, money laundering and conspiring to violate foreign lobbying laws in connection with efforts on behalf of the Azerbaijani government and a Mexico City bank that paid them at least $238,390.

The Cuellars pleaded not guilty on Friday, and were released after each paid a bond of $100,000. In a statement before the indictment, Mr. Cuellar declared his innocence and suggested that the House Ethics Committee had cleared his financial activity. The Azerbaijani Embassy did not respond to a request for comment.

The charges against the couple suggest that the Justice Department is expanding its efforts to clamp down on foreign influence campaigns, despite recent high-profile setbacks. Juries and judges have rejected cases related to unregistered foreign lobbying by political figures with close ties to former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald J. Trump.

The indictment is the second in recent months to charge a sitting member of Congress with violating a prohibition on lawmakers serving as foreign agents. Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, and his wife received a series of charges starting in October accusing them of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, including gold bars, to help the governments of Egypt and Qatar. Mr. Menendez and his wife have pleaded not guilty.

Beyond the payments Mr. Menendez and Mr. Cuellar are accused of receiving, Azerbaijan, Egypt and Qatar have been heavy spenders on traditional Washington lobbying to maintain the flow of United States aid and to win support in disputes with neighbors.

From 2015 to the end of last year, Egypt spent $14.3 million on lobbying and Qatar spent nearly $85.9 million, according to analyses by the nonpartisan website OpenSecrets of disclosures to the Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA. The disclosures do not include donations to think tanks and other expenditures that wealthy foreign governments use to try to generate good will.

Azerbaijan spent nearly $9.2 million on lobbying in that time, according to FARA filings. Arms of the government retained about 20 firms during that time, including ones led by former Gov. Haley Barbour, Republican of Mississippi, and former Representative Bob Livingston, a Louisiana Republican who served as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. The lobbying efforts also involved firms run by Democrats, such as the former Biden adviser Larry Rasky, who died in 2020, and the fund-raiser Vincent A. Roberti.

Azerbaijan’s goals included winning support for the reintegration of the Nagorno-Karabakh territory in the Lesser Caucasus, which has been under dispute with Armenia for decades. (Azerbaijan seized full control of the territory in September.) Azerbaijan also wanted Congress to repeal a ban on U.S. aid imposed in 1992 during the first Nagorno-Karabakh war.

While the United States has continually issued waivers to the ban since 2001, the Azerbaijanis consider the durability of the underlying ban “kind of an insult and injustice,” said Richard Kauzlarich, who served as ambassador to Azerbaijan during the Clinton administration.

“I haven’t seen signs of the return on the investment as far as issues that are important to Azerbaijan in terms of their lobbying efforts,” Mr. Kauzlarich said. He attributed that partly to continued concerns about human rights abuses by the Azerbaijani government and partly to the lack of an organized, activated diaspora like that which has lobbied for Armenian causes.

“No amount of money is going to be able to counter the number of voters in California and Massachusetts and elsewhere where Armenian Americans live, are active and vote,” he said.

While politicians in Europe have been accused of accepting gifts and bribes from Azerbaijani and Qatari officials, the prosecutors’ claims of payments to Mr. Menendez and Mr. Cueller add a new wrinkle in the world of subterranean influence campaigns in Washington.

The lawmakers were in prime positions to help foreign governments. Mr. Menendez was the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, while Mr. Cuellar served on the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the budget of the State Department.

After their respective indictments, Mr. Menendez stepped down from his chairmanship, and Mr. Cuellar from his position as the top Democrat on the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee. Mr. Menendez’s trial is scheduled to begin this month. Both have vowed to remain in office as they contest the charges, and Mr. Cuellar has said he intends to continue his re-election campaign.

The Azerbaijanis’ courtship of Mr. Cuellar came as oil interests in the country, including the state-owned company that prosecutors say funded the payments to the Cuellars, maintained a presence in Texas.

Mr. Cuellar and his wife, along with other Texas lawmakers, were treated to trips to Azerbaijan in 2013. He received briefings from high-level government officials and attended a dinner with executives from the state-owned oil company, according to prosecutors. After Mr. Cuellar returned, he was recruited by Azerbaijani officials, who began funneling payments to a pair of consulting firms his wife created called IRC Business Solutions and Global Gold Group, according to prosecutors and Texas corporations filings.

The Cuellars used the money to pay off debts, fund living expenses and make purchases including a $12,000 custom gown and a $7,000 down payment for a new car, prosecutors say.

The indictment claims that Imelda Cuellar “performed little or no legitimate work in exchange for the payments.” Instead, “in exchange for the bribe payments, Henry Cuellar agreed to perform official acts and acts in violation of his official duties benefiting Azerbaijan and to be and act as an agent of the government of Azerbaijan.”

Among the services prosecutors say Mr. Cuellar performed at the behest of the Azerbaijanis was pressing the Obama administration to take a harder line against Armenia, trying to insert language favorable to Azerbaijan into legislation and committee reports and having members of his staff urge the State Department to renew a passport for the daughter of Mr. Suleymanov.

Mr. Cuellar’s efforts on behalf of Azerbaijan mostly seem to have had minimal impact. He withdrew the amendment to strip funding from Armenia after objections from an Armenian diaspora group.

“It was going to be ruled out of order so I withdrew but they are taking credit ha ha,” Mr. Cuellar texted Mr. Suleymanov.

The ambassador responded “they take credit for everything!”

After the indictment of Mr. Cuellar was unsealed, the group, Armenian Assembly of America, called for “a broader investigation in relation to these charges and who else may be tied to Azerbaijan’s corrupt modes of operation.”

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