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A White-Collar Indictment Shatters Consultant Henry Cuellar’s Blue-Collar Picture

A White Collar Indictment Shatters Representative Henry Cuellars Blue Collar Image


Over time, Consultant Henry Cuellar typically 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 exhausting work and beware the hazards 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 am one of 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 in the country.

By 2013, these hardscrabble beginnings appeared a distant reminiscence.

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

He had lately bought a penthouse condominium 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 neighborhood on a road known as Property Drive. He took on an rising quantity of debt, and his web price declined.

A brand new supply of money quickly revealed itself, federal prosecutors are actually saying.

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

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

In a statement before the indictmentMr. Cuellar proclaimed his innocence. One of the crucial conservative Home 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 more attractive pickup opportunity for Republicans looking for to guard their slender majority within the chamber.

Two political consultants who prosecutors say aided the Cuellars’ scheme have agreed to plead guilty 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 may create a motive for bribery. That didn’t exist.” Mr. Cuellar “lives inside his means, and like anybody else, his web price goes up and down,” Mr. Reed stated in an interview “The truth that he’s had success doesn’t change his roots. He’s by no means forgotten the place he got here from,” Mr. Reed stated, including, “that is the American dream, and he’s in public service to make it actual for others.”

Mr. Cuellar, the lawyer stated, has adopted marketing campaign finance and ethics guidelines. “There was no quid professional quo,” Mr. Reed stated. “His actions on this matter had been lawful, clear and fully in step with the actions of a lot of his colleagues and constant together with his personal rules 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 overseas agent. The primary, Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, has additionally pleaded not responsible and is ready to go on trial this week.

In some methods, although, Mr. Cuellar’s story — as detailed in the indictmentmarketing campaign finance filings, property information and congressional disclosure statements — traces a well-recognized 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 relations. In Washington, members of Congress are invited to unique golf equipment and black-tie gala features by donors, rich colleagues and lobbyists. Of their districts, they’re courted by enterprise house owners looking for favor.

The lure will be tougher to withstand for the relatively small group of politicians from humble backgrounds who generally wrestle to make ends meet whereas balancing household lives again residence with the excessive value of residing in Washington a lot of the 12 months.

Mr. Cuellar recommended in his assertion that the Home Ethics Committee and an unnamed “nationwide regulation agency” had cleared his monetary exercise.

The proclamation, and his lawyer’s feedback, trace at a attainable protection. They forged his conduct 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 based mostly on expertise that she was entitled to make use of to earn a residing.

Whereas there are pages and pages of rules limiting outdoors earnings, presents and marketing campaign spending, members of Congress typically encompass themselves with sycophantic employees members disinclined to push again, in addition to refined attorneys who provide recommendation on navigating legal guidelines limiting 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 previous story. It occurs to individuals,” stated Jackie Speier, who stepped down final 12 months after 15 years as a Democratic consultant from California. “You see when their gentle will get too vibrant, their ethical compass has no solution to measure proper from fallacious.”

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

The indictment doesn’t establish Ms. Speier by identify, but it surely refers to textual content messages by which Mr. Cuellar and his Azerbaijani contacts sought to neutralize her efforts to supply funding to Armenia, which Azerbaijan considered 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 surroundings.”

The spending detailed within the indictment consists of utilizing the overseas cash to repay $58,000 in bank card funds and different money owed, fund residing 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 stated the Cuellars by no means showcased their wealth, whilst they moved to the gated neighborhood. Melissa R. Cigarroa, a Laredo metropolis councilwoman who has backed Mr. Cuellar via his latest main races, stated the Cuellars, and particularly Ms. Cuellar, had been “not ostentatious.”

Mr. Cuellar has repeatedly advised 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 typically enlisted to assist with the work.

“Different children received up on Saturday and watched the cartoons,” Mr. Cuellar advised The Houston Chronicle for an article he posted on his official House website in 2014. “My dad advised us, ‘You end your work first.’ So we’d be out on the break of day, mowing and raking, so we may watch ‘The Jetsons.’”

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

In a campaign advertisementhe stated that “I washed dishes whereas I labored exhausting on my method from Laredo Faculty to Georgetown College.” After incomes graduate levels in enterprise and the regulation, he stated within the advert, “I turned down jobs in huge cities and got here residence to Laredo to make a distinction.”

He began his personal regulation follow and was elected to the Texas Home 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.

Alongside the best way, he assembled a small portfolio of rental properties in Laredo. He created an organization known as HC Leases to handle the properties, together with his childhood residence, which is owned by his sister, and the home subsequent door, which he owns. One other 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 together with his companies and his household.

Throughout his early congressional runs, his marketing campaign committee reported to the Federal Election Fee that it paid $11,500 in rent to his regulation agency and HC Leases, although the filings additionally present that Mr. Cuellar donated about $159,000 price of lease, 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 relations, F.E.C. filings showtogether with his spouse, his two daughters and his sister Rosie Cuellar, a former Webb County official now working for the Texas State Home. 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 1000’s 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 Individuals — from farmers to small-business house owners to public servants — and I’m not exempt from it,” he told The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

His web price dipped as little as $29,000 in 2013down from a minimal of $200,000 the year beforein line with an analysis of the disclosure filings by the nonpartisan web site OpenSecrets. (These filings require officers to checklist solely a variety of their belongings and liabilities, moderately than exact quantities.)

It’s 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 value greater than $26,000, included briefings with officers from the Azerbaijani authorities and oil firm, meals and excursions of museums and palaces, in line with a congressional disclosure statement.

Shortly after they returned, Azerbaijani officials discussed as “a top priority” the necessity to domesticate relationships with members of the Home Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Overseas Operations and Associated Packages, which included Mr. Cuellar, in line with his indictment.

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

A couple of 12 months later, Mr. Cuellar and his spouse had been enhancing a draft of an settlement below which the oil firm would pay month-to-month charges to an organization she had created, in line with the indictment.

Sylvia Bruni, the chair of the Webb County Democratic Get together, in a message to native Democrats, known as the claims within the indictment “distressing, casting a darkish cloud over all our sincerest efforts on behalf of our neighborhood.” However she wrote that the celebration 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 stated 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”: an excellent man.

“He’s certainly one of us,” stated Juan Eladio Rivera, 68, a Democrat and retired carpenter in Roma, Texas. “Individuals wish 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 executed good issues.”

Jazmine Ulloa contributed reporting from Laredo, Texas.

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