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A White-Collar Indictment Shatters a Congressman’s Blue-Collar Image

A White-Collar Indictment Shatters a Congressman’s Blue-Collar Image


Over the years, Representative Henry Cuellar usually harked again to the small home in Laredo, Texas. It was there that his mother and father, one-time migrant employees who spoke no English, raised him and his seven siblings to worth laborious work and beware the risks of debt.

The references in speeches, marketing campaign ads and interviews had been supposed to forge affinity with the largely Hispanic residents of his hometown. They demonstrated that “I’m one among you,” as his marketing campaign web site put it in 2004, when he first gained election to Congress as a Democrat representing Laredo, one of many poorest cities within the nation.

By 2013, these hardscrabble beginnings appeared a distant reminiscence.

Mr. Cuellar had change into the hub of a bustling small enterprise that blurred the strains between his political operation, his companies and his household, affording him trappings of affluence whilst he typically strained to make ends meet.

He had not too long ago bought a penthouse house in Washington’s bustling Navy Yard neighborhood close to Nationals Park and a pair of properties in Laredo, together with a 6,000-square-foot home with a pool and cabana in a gated group on a road referred to as Estate Drive. He took on an rising quantity of debt, and his internet value declined.

A brand new supply of money quickly revealed itself, federal prosecutors at the moment are saying.

Starting in 2014, Mr. Cuellar and his spouse, Imelda Cuellar, accepted at the least $598,000 over seven years from a Mexican financial institution and an oil firm owned by the Azerbaijani authorities, in response to prosecutors.

The Cuellars had been charged earlier this month with accepting bribes, cash laundering and violating international lobbying legal guidelines by making an attempt to affect the federal government on behalf of their international paymasters. They pleaded not responsible and had been launched after every paid a bond of $100,000.

In an announcement earlier than the indictment, Mr. Cuellar proclaimed his innocence. One of probably the most conservative House Democrats — and the one one who publicly opposes abortion rights — Mr. Cuellar vowed to proceed his marketing campaign for re-election, although the indictment made the seat a extra engaging pickup alternative for Republicans looking for to guard their slim majority within the chamber.

Two political consultants who prosecutors say aided the Cuellars’ scheme have agreed to plead responsible to conspiring with Mr. Cuellar to launder greater than $200,000 from the Mexican financial institution.

Eric Reed, a lawyer for Mr. Cuellar, rejected any “suggestion that there’s a monetary desperation that might create a motive for bribery. That didn’t exist.” Mr. Cuellar “lives inside his means, and like anybody else, his internet value goes up and down,” Mr. Reed mentioned in an interview “The indisputable fact that he’s had success doesn’t change his roots. He’s by no means forgotten the place he got here from,” Mr. Reed mentioned, including, “that is the American dream, and he’s in public service to make it actual for others.”

Mr. Cuellar, the lawyer mentioned, has adopted marketing campaign finance and ethics guidelines. “There was no quid professional quo,” Mr. Reed mentioned. “His actions on this matter had been lawful, clear and completely in keeping with the actions of lots of his colleagues and constant along with his personal ideas and the pursuits of the nation.”

Mr. Cuellar’s indictment was solely the second time in trendy historical past {that a} sitting member of Congress was charged with performing as a international agent. The first, Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, has additionally pleaded not responsible and is about to go on trial this week.

In some methods, although, Mr. Cuellar’s story — as detailed within the indictment, marketing campaign finance filings, property data and congressional disclosure statements — traces a well-known Washington trajectory. Newcomers to Congress are sometimes tempted by the spoils of workplace and shortly discover their funds and political lives intertwined.

Deep-pocketed particular pursuits dangle political motion committee contributions and junkets, in addition to paydays for members of the family. In Washington, members of Congress are invited to unique golf equipment and black-tie gala features by donors, rich colleagues and lobbyists. In their districts, they’re courted by enterprise homeowners looking for favor.

The lure will be tougher to withstand for the comparatively small group of politicians from humble backgrounds who typically battle to make ends meet whereas balancing household lives again house with the excessive price of dwelling in Washington a lot of the yr.

Mr. Cuellar steered in his assertion that the House Ethics Committee and an unnamed “nationwide legislation agency” had cleared his monetary exercise.

The proclamation, and his lawyer’s feedback, trace at a potential protection. They forged his habits in Congress as typical policymaking unrelated to any outdoors pursuits. Mr. Cuellar’s assertion intimates that any funds to his spouse had been for consulting work primarily based on expertise that she was entitled to make use of to earn a dwelling.

While there are pages and pages of guidelines proscribing outdoors revenue, presents and marketing campaign spending, members of Congress usually encompass themselves with sycophantic workers members disinclined to push again, in addition to refined attorneys who provide recommendation on navigating legal guidelines proscribing the spending of taxpayer and donor cash.

Mr. Cuellar assembly with Elin Suleymanov, the Azerbaijani ambassador, in a picture launched by Mr. Cuellar’s workplace.

“It’s an outdated story. It occurs to individuals,” mentioned Jackie Speier, who stepped down final yr after 15 years as a Democratic consultant from California. “You see when their mild will get too shiny, their ethical compass has no solution to measure proper from improper.”

Ms. Speier had been a number one congressional supporter of Azerbaijan’s regional rival Armenia.

The indictment doesn’t determine Ms. Speier by identify, however it refers to textual content messages wherein Mr. Cuellar and his Azerbaijani contacts sought to neutralize her efforts to offer funding to Armenia, which Azerbaijan thought to be a slap within the face. She declined to touch upon the fees in opposition to Mr. Cuellar, saying solely that Congress will be “an intoxicating setting.”

The spending detailed within the indictment contains utilizing the international cash to repay $58,000 in bank card funds and different money owed, fund dwelling bills and make purchases together with a $12,000 customized robe for Ms. Cuellar and a $7,000 down cost for a brand new automotive. It presents a really totally different image of Mr. Cuellar from the one he projected again in Laredo.

Some constituents mentioned the Cuellars by no means showcased their wealth, whilst they moved to the gated group. Melissa R. Cigarroa, a Laredo metropolis councilwoman who has backed Mr. Cuellar by his latest main races, mentioned the Cuellars, and particularly Ms. Cuellar, had been “not ostentatious.”

Mr. Cuellar has repeatedly informed the story of how his mother and father toiled for years as migrant farm employees earlier than settling in Laredo, when Mr. Cuellar, their firstborn, was a toddler. They raised him and his siblings on as little as $300 in month-to-month wages his father earned as a gardener, and his youngsters had been usually enlisted to assist with the work.

“Other youngsters obtained up on Saturday and watched the cartoons,” Mr. Cuellar informed The Houston Chronicle for an article he posted on his official House web site in 2014. “My dad informed us, ‘You end your work first.’ So we might be out on the daybreak, mowing and raking, so we may watch ‘The Jetsons.’”

Mr. Cuellar informed The Chronicle that his father, who died in 2019, “doesn’t like debt.”

In a marketing campaign commercial, he mentioned that “I washed dishes whereas I labored laborious on my means from Laredo College to Georgetown University.” After incomes graduate levels in enterprise and the legislation, he mentioned within the advert, “I turned down jobs in huge cities and got here house to Laredo to make a distinction.”

He began his personal legislation observe and was elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1986 at age 30, serving for 14 years. In 2001, he was chosen by Rick Perry, a Republican serving as Texas’ governor, to be secretary of state.

Along the way in which, he assembled a small portfolio of rental properties in Laredo. He created an organization referred to as HC Rentals to handle the properties, together with his childhood house, which is owned by his sister, and the home subsequent door, which he owns. Another firm he managed, HC Air, operated a small personal aircraft he purchased earlier than his election to Congress.

His political operation got here to overlap along with his companies and his household.

During his early congressional runs, his marketing campaign committee reported to the Federal Election Commission that it paid $11,500 in hire to his legislation agency and HC Rentals, although the filings additionally present that Mr. Cuellar donated about $159,000 value of hire, workplace furnishings and tools to his marketing campaign. The marketing campaign paid about $92,000 to HC Air for air journey, earlier than he offered his aircraft in 2011 for as a lot as $100,000, F.E.C. filings and private monetary disclosure statements present.

His marketing campaign would later pay a complete of greater than $15,000 to his members of the family, F.E.C. filings present, together with his spouse, his two daughters and his sister Rosie Cuellar, a former Webb County official now operating for the Texas State House. Mr. Cuellar’s brother Martin is the Webb County sheriff.

In 2013, Mr. Cuellar disclosed that he had taken on money owed totaling as a lot as $1.15 million, together with a mortgage that originally ranged from $50,000 to $100,000 from a donor to purchase one other property in Laredo. The donor, Rasoul Khaledi, owns a series of duty-free shops alongside the Mexican border, together with in Laredo, in addition to two elsewhere in Mexico. He and his household donated tens of hundreds of {dollars} to Mr. Cuellar’s campaigns, and 4 of Mr. Khaledi’s youngsters got unpaid internships within the congressman’s workplace, as reported by the Center for Public Integrity. Mr. Khaledi didn’t reply to requests for remark.

When the loans began showing on Mr. Cuellar’s private monetary disclosure statements, he blamed the financial downturn.

“This recession has impacted all Americans — from farmers to small-business homeowners to public servants — and I’m not exempt from it,” he informed The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

His internet value dipped as little as $29,000 in 2013, down from a minimal of $200,000 the yr earlier than, in response to an evaluation of the disclosure filings by the nonpartisan web site OpenSecrets. (These filings require officers to checklist solely a variety of their belongings and liabilities, slightly than exact quantities.)

It is just not clear why the Azerbaijani and Mexican pursuits initially reached out to Mr. Cuellar, although the Azerbaijani oil trade, together with the state-owned firm that prosecutors say funded the funds to the Cuellars, preserve a presence in Texas.

In 2013, a nonprofit funded by the state-owned oil firm organized and paid for a visit to Istanbul and Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, for Mr. Cuellar and his spouse. The journey, which price greater than $26,000, included briefings with officers from the Azerbaijani authorities and oil firm, meals and excursions of museums and palaces, in response to a congressional disclosure assertion.

Shortly after they returned, Azerbaijani officers mentioned as “a high precedence” the necessity to domesticate relationships with members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs, which included Mr. Cuellar, in response to his indictment.

The “excellent news is that Cuellar was simply in Baku,” an Azerbaijani diplomat wrote to a consultant of the oil firm.

About a yr later, Mr. Cuellar and his spouse had been modifying a draft of an settlement underneath which the oil firm would pay month-to-month charges to an organization she had created, in response to the indictment.

Sylvia Bruni, the chair of the Webb County Democratic Party, in a message to native Democrats, referred to as the claims within the indictment “distressing, casting a darkish cloud over all our sincerest efforts on behalf of our group.” But she wrote that the party would “stay quiet relating to the allegations, presuming innocence and trusting the justice system to work pretty.”

As information of Mr. Cuellar’s indictment unfold final week, constituents reacted with shock at allegations they mentioned had been so at odds with the person they knew. In interviews with greater than two dozen voters in his district, many described Mr. Cuellar as humble, hard-working or just “un buen hombre”: a superb man.

“He is one among us,” mentioned Juan Eladio Rivera, 68, a Democrat and retired carpenter in Roma, Texas. “People need to knock him out of energy as a result of he has been in workplace for therefore lengthy, however he has been in workplace for therefore lengthy as a result of he has accomplished good issues.”

Jazmine Ulloa contributed reporting from Laredo, Texas.

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