Democratic US Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas and his wife are indicted over ties to Azerbaijan

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Democratic U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas and his wife were indicted on conspiracy and bribery charges and taken into custody Friday in connection with a U.S. Department of Justice probe into the couple's ties to the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan.

From 2014 to 2021, Cuellar, 68, and his wife accepted nearly $600,000 in bribes from an Azerbaijan-controlled energy company and a bank in Mexico, and in exchange, Cuellar agreed to advance the interests of the country and the bank in the U.S., according to the indictment.

Among other things, Cuellar agreed to influence legislation favorable to Azerbaijan and deliver a pro-Azerbaijan speech on the floor of the U.S. House, the indictment states.

The Department of Justice said the couple surrendered to authorities on Friday and were taken into custody. They made an initial appearance before a federal judge in Houston and were each released on $100,000 bond, the DOJ said.

The longtime congressman released a statement Friday saying he and his wife, Imelda Cuellar, 67, “are innocent of these allegations.”

“Everything I have done in Congress has been to serve the people of South Texas,” Cuellar said. “Before I took action, I proactively sought legal advice from the House Ethics Committee, who gave me more than one written opinion, along with an additional opinion from a national law firm.

“Furthermore, we requested a meeting with the Washington D.C. prosecutors to explain the facts and they refused to discuss the case with us or hear our side.”

Neither Cuellar nor his attorney immediately responded to calls seeking comment on the matter.

In addition to bribery and conspiracy, the couple face charges including wire fraud conspiracy, acting as agents of foreign principals and money laundering. If convicted, they face up to decades in prison and forfeiture of any property linked to proceeds from the alleged scheme.

The payments to the couple initially 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 unspecified strategic consulting and advising services.

“In reality, the contract was a sham used to disguise and legitimate the corrupt agreement between Henry Cuellar and the government of Azerbaijan,” the indictment states.

Imelda Cuellar sent a falsified invoice to the Azerbaijan energy company's Washington, D.C., office under the agreement, stating her work was complete.

“In fact, Imelda Cuellar had performed little or no legitimate work under the contract,” the indictment says.

The indictment also alleges an Azerbaijani diplomat referred to Henry Cuellar in text messages as “el Jefe” or “boss,” and also that a member of Cuellar’s staff sent multiple emails to officials at the Department of State pressuring them to renew a U.S. passport for an Azerbaijani diplomat’s daughter.

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

The FBI searched the congressman’s house in the border city of Laredo in 2022, and Cuellar’s attorney at that time said Cuellar was not the target of that investigation. That search was part of a broader investigation related to Azerbaijan that saw FBI agents serve a raft of subpoenas and conduct interviews in Washington, D.C., and Texas, a person with direct knowledge of the probe previously told The Associated Press. The person was not authorized to discuss it publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Cuellar, one of the last anti-abortion Democrats in Congress, narrowly defeated progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros by fewer than 300 votes in a primary race in 2022.