The charges against Cuellar reveal Azerbaijan's attempts to influence

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

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

Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat now accused of accepting bribes and acting as a foreign agent in a years-long scheme, indicated in a text that he planned a legislative maneuver to try to deprive Armenia of funding because it hosted bases Russian military.

The Azerbaijani ambassador responded enthusiastically.

“Your amendment is more relevant than ever,” Ambassador Elin Suleymanov wrote to Mr. Cuellar. “It's all about the Russian presence there,” added Suleymanov, who called the deputy “Boss.”

Cuellar's legislative move didn't go far. But at the time of the text exchanges, his family had accepted at least $360,000 from companies controlled by the Azerbaijani government since December 2014, according to a federal indictment unsealed Friday in Houston.

The 54-page indictment highlights the importance of U.S. decision-making to foreign interests and its efforts to try to shape it to its advantage, despite high risks and sometimes questionable outcomes.

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 bank Mexico City which paid them at least $238,390.

The Cuellars pleaded not guilty Friday and were released after each posting $100,000 bail. 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 pair suggest the Justice Department is expanding its efforts to crack down on foreign influence campaigns, despite recent high-profile setbacks. Juries and judges have rejected cases alleging 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 ban on lawmakers serving as foreign agents. Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, and his wife have received a series of indictments since October accusing them of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, including gold bars, to help governments in Egypt and Qatar. Mr. Menendez and his wife have pleaded not guilty.

Beyond the payments Menendez and Cuellar are accused of receiving, Azerbaijan, Egypt and Qatar have spent heavily on Washington's traditional pressure to keep U.S. aid flowing and to gain 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 analysis by independent website OpenSecrets of disclosures to the Justice Department pursuant to the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA. The disclosures do not include donations to think tanks and other spending that wealthy foreign governments use to try to generate goodwill.

According to FARA documents, Azerbaijan spent nearly $9.2 million on lobbying during that period. During that time, Arms of Government maintained about 20 companies, including those led by former Gov. Haley Barbour, a Mississippi Republican, and former Rep. Bob Livingston, a Louisiana Republican who was chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. The lobbying efforts also involved firms run by Democrats, such as former Biden adviser Larry Rasky, who died in 2020, and fundraiser Vincent A. Roberti.

Among Azerbaijan's goals was to obtain support for the reintegration of the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh into the Lesser Caucasus, which has been in dispute with Armenia for decades. (Azerbaijan took 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 continuously issued waivers to the ban since 2001, Azeris consider the length of the underlying ban “a kind of insult and injustice,” said Richard Kauzlarich, who served as ambassador to Azerbaijan during the Clinton administration.

“I have seen no signs of return on investment regarding issues that are important to Azerbaijan in terms of lobbying efforts,” Mr. Kauzlarich said. He attributed this partly to ongoing concerns about human rights abuses by the Azerbaijani government and partly to the lack of an organized and active diaspora like the one that has lobbied for Armenian causes.

“No amount of money will be able to counteract the number of voters in California, 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, prosecutors' allegations of payoffs to Mr. Menendez and Mr. Cueller add a new wrinkle in the world of underground influence campaigns in Washington.

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 State Department budget.

After their respective indictments, Mr. Menendez resigned his chairmanship, and Mr. Cuellar from his position as the top Democrat on the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee. The trial of Mr. Menendez is expected to begin this month. Both have vowed to remain in office while contesting the charges, and Cuellar has said he intends to continue his campaign for re-election.

The Azeris' courtship of Mr. Cuellar came as oil interests in the country, including the state company that prosecutors say financed the payments to the Cuellars, maintained a presence in Texas.

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

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

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

Among the services that prosecutors say Cuellar performed at the behest of the Azerbaijanis was pressuring the Obama administration to take a harder line against Armenia by trying to insert pro-Azerbaijan language into the legislation and committee reports and by having members of his staff solicit the State Department. renew the passport for Mr. Suleymanov's daughter.

Mr. Cuellar's efforts on behalf of Azerbaijan appear to have had little impact. He withdrew the amendment to defund Armenia after objections from an Armenian diaspora group.

“It would have been excluded from the order, so I withdrew, but they are taking credit for it haha,” Mr. Cuellar wrote to Mr. Suleymanov.

The ambassador replied “they take credit for everything!”

After Mr. Cuellar's accusation was revealed, the group, Armenian Assembly of America, called for “a broader investigation into these allegations and who else may be tied to Azerbaijan's corrupt ways of operating.”

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