After the FBI raided Rep. Henry Cuellar’s home and campaign office on Wednesday, the big and yet-to-be answered question was a simple one: Why?
A source familiar with the investigation told ABC that it was connected to a sprawling investigation into Azerbaijan and a group of American businessmen, but details about any wrongdoing have been scant. Cuellar’s connections with Azerbaijan, however, are extensive.
And notably, there’s one government trip to Azerbaijan in 2013, as The Intercept first reported Friday night, that has already resulted in a campaign donor pleading guilty to lying to Congress five years later.
While Cuellar wasn’t on that particular trip, one of his staffers was. And just four months earlier, Cueller and his wife, Imelda, embarked on a junket to Turkey and Azerbaijan to see the sights, meet top leaders, and promote economic and geopolitical cooperation between the countries and the United States, according to congressional disclosures.
While in the Azerbaijan capital of Baku, they met with the president of the country and, after lunch, headed to the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic for a briefing. Then it was on to parliament to meet with other dignitaries.
The tab for the nine-day jaunt—$26,145.26—was picked up by Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians, a Houston-based non-profit that aimed to facilitate this cultural exchange, and approved by the congressional Ethics Committee, according to public records.
After the trip, the head of that organization, a U.S. citizen named Kemal Oksuz, helped fund a second trip four months later. Cuellar was not on that second trip, but a larger delegation—10 congressional colleagues—were. Instead, Cuellar met with the Azerbaijan ambassador in D.C., according to a press release from his office.
Two years later, Oksuz contributed $2,000 to the Cuellar campaign, Federal Election Commission records show. He’d previously donated $1,500, six months before Cuellar’s trip.
But that second trip gave rise to a criminal indictment against Oksuz. It turned out that his group had not paid for it, but had funneled the funds—$750,000—from the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic, a government-owned entity.
He then lied to the House Ethics Committee to cover up the fact, and in 2018, Oksuz pleaded guilty to federal charges for those lies. The Ethics Committee later cleared the members who participated in the second trip of any wrongdoing, saying the lawmakers acted “in good faith” and that the Ethics Committee never conclusively established the true source of the funds for the trip.
But Cuellar’s trip appears to have left an impression. One month later, he took to the House floor and praised Azerbaijan—taking particular care to extoll the country’s oil industry.
“Here’s something Azeris have in common with Texans: they are a rich oil producing nation,” Cuellar said. “As we do in Texas, Azeris have a long history with oil. Today, they supply the pipeline that moves Caspian oil to the west, via Turkey, without running the oil supply through Russia or Iran. That greatly increases the security of the pipeline.”
In that 2013 floor speech, Cuellar also noted that “Azeris have an interesting way of investing their oil profits in future generations,” noting infrastructure projects and “overseas scholarships.”
Cuellar, curiously, went on to take up an interest in academic exchange programs between the U.S. and Azerbaijan—and worked with Oksuz to do it. In 2015, Cuellar announced an exchange partnership between Texas A&M and one of the organizations Oksuz had used to disguise money from SOCAR, the government-owned oil company.
Cuellar has taken an abiding interest in Azerbaijan. He is co-chair of the Azerbaijan Caucus, and has provided a strong voice for the country’s national security, economic, and cultural interests. He signed a letter as recently as last April advocating for aid for the country after a deadly conflict with neighboring Armenia; the letter was distributed by a lobbyist at DC firm BGR.
As for the aforementioned “overseas scholarships,” Cuellar has also regularly joined the Azerbaijan ambassador at educational functions, including at a local San Antonio university. And just last year the president of tiny Laredo College, in Cuellar’s hometown, boasted in an open letter that he had met with “multiple international dignitaries” during a recent trip to Azerbaijan.
“He was selected and sponsored by the Azerbaijan government to obtain an energy certificate,” the letter read, adding that the “progressive initiatives LC is known for” will “enhance our plans for an incredible energy program to benefit our students.” The school president was pictured alongside the Mexican Ambassador to Azerbaijan, along with the vice president of SOCAR.
Perhaps even closer to home, Cuellar also scored a semester exchange in Azerbaijan for one of his 2020 interns.
Another Cuellar intern: Kemal Oksuz’s son, who was hired in 2019, six months after his father pleaded guilty.
Cuellar’s congressional office did not return a request for comment.