Earlier this week, the FBI raided Laredo, Texas, home of Representative Henry Cuellar. According to ABC News, the raid was carried out as part of an ongoing investigation linked to Azerbaijan. Although little is known about this specific FBI probe, which CNN reported involves the Public Integrity Section of the Ministry of Justice, Cuellar’s relationship with Azerbaijan is well documented.
In fact, an Azerbaijani organization that Cuellar has had close ties to over the years has already been investigated by the FBI, with its president pleading guilty to courting members of Congress by serving as a front for the company. national oil.
In January 2013, Cuellar and his wife flew to Turkey and Azerbaijan on a trip sponsored by an entity calling itself the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians, according to disclosure to congress reports. The Cuellars’ trip cost just over $20,000 and was approved by the House Ethics Committee.
Kemal Oksuz, appointed president of the Turquoise Council, told the ethics committee that no foreign money had paid for the trip, according to the revelations, but this claim is questionable given the events that took place shortly after .
In 2018, Oksuz pleaded guilty to covering up the fact that a separate Congress trip in May 2013 to Azerbaijan had been funded by a foreign government; he was convicted in 2019. Oksuz had claimed that the trip in question was paid for by the Turquoise Council and the Assembly of Friends of Azerbaijan, both of which claim to promote regional and transnational cooperation. In truth, the journey was paid by SOCAR, the State Oil Company of the Republic of Azerbaijan, a 100% owned national oil and gas company.
Court documents show Oksuz wired $750,000 from SOCAR to arrange travel for 10 House members and their staff to Azerbaijan. (Cuellar did not make this second trip.) Prior to this deposit, the Assembly of Friends of Azerbaijan, one of the nonprofit organizations involved in the trip program, had only $283.15. in his checking account.
The Assembly of Friends of Azerbaijan was founded shortly after Cuellar’s January trip, but Oksuz served as the head of both, and as the Congressional Ethics Office later reported, “records suggest that this individual used the entities interchangeably.” And Cuellar’s itinerary for the January 2013 trip, filed with the ethics committee, shows a “briefing” at SOCAR and, later that evening, a “dinner with the SOCAR management team.”
The relationship paid off. In July 2013, Cuellar spoke at a reception in Washington, DC, in honor of SOCAR, with its president, Rovnag Abdullayev, to highlight the importance of a natural gas pipeline to transport natural gas to Europe.
This pipeline and related projects are crucial for the national interests of Azerbaijan. SOCAR is the largest company and source of tax revenue in Azerbaijan. The company has embarked on ambitious plans to expand its international footprint, including a network of pipelines that stretches across multiple countries to deliver gas to Europe. The so-called Southern Gas Corridor, built by SOCAR in partnership with BP and other Western energy giants, required an investment of over $45 billion.
Later that year, in September 2013, Cuellar and other lawmakers sponsored a congressional resolution expressing support for the proposed South Azerbaijan Gas Corridor, stating that it is in “the national interest of the United States” to support construction and work closely with the governments of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia and other countries in the region for the pipeline to be completed. The resolution was adopted by the House Foreign Affairs Committee by unanimous consent. In 2020, part of the pipeline crossing the Adriatic Sea started commercial operations to deliver gas from Azerbaijan to Italy.
“My thanks to Congressman Cuellar for his very instrumental role in this affiliation.”
In April 2015, Cuellar announced an affiliation agreement between Texas A&M International University and the Assembly of Friends of Azerbaijan, described in a Cuellar press release as an “educational and cultural organization” – but which we now know, by Oksuz’s own admission, was a front for the Azerbaijani oil company.
“My thanks to Congressman Cuellar for his very instrumental role in this affiliation,” Oksuz said in Cuellar’s press release. “He is behind this TAMIU-AFAZ affiliation agreement. This agreement will provide a great opportunity for TAMIU faculty and students to not only study international energy law, energy policy, environmental impacts and strategy management, but also meet and network with people in the public and private sectors.
In May 2015, the Congressional Ethics Office published a report detailing the funding breach orchestrated by Oksuz. The FBI also began to investigate. By announcing his possible guilty plea, the Department of Justice said that Oksuz had laid bare the scheme:
According to confessions made as part of his guilty plea, Oksuz lied on disclosure forms filed with the ethics committee before and after a privately sponsored congressional trip to Azerbaijan. Oksuz falsely represented and certified on required disclosure forms that the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasions (TCAE), the Houston nonprofit of which Oksuz was president, had not accepted any funding for Congressional travel from from outside sources. Oksuz admitted, in truth, to orchestrating a scheme to funnel money to finance the trip of the State Oil Company of the Republic of Azerbaijan (SOCAR), the national oil and gas company of Azerbaijan, wholly owned by the state and then hid the true source of funding. , who violated the House’s travel rules.
Oksuz was also a Cuellar campaign donor, records show. The Cuellar campaign received $1,000 from Oksuz in June 2012 and another $2,500 in February 2015.
Cuellar, co-chairman of the Azerbaijan Congressional Caucus, continued to promote Azerbaijan’s interests. Following the devastating war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020, which fought over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Cuellar petitioned his colleagues in Congress to ensure that any humanitarian aid for the conflict would be “provided by the Azerbaijani government or United Nations organizations” and not directly to Armenia.
A letter requesting the funding, signed by Cuellar, was circulated by BGR Group, a lobbying firm that represents the Azerbaijani embassy, according to filings with the Justice Ministry.
Azerbaijan has been caught up in repeated scandals around the world in which it has been questioned for trying to bribe lawmakers. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe published a report in 2018 claiming that its former members had engaged in “corrupt activities” with the Azerbaijani government. Last year, the German Bundestag also supported a corruption investigation, according to Transparency International, after “the Azerbaijani Laundromat investigation showed how a network of slush funds financed such ‘caviar diplomacy’ through opaque payments to politicians across Europe”.
The gifts and payments to European policymakers were made in part to shape support for the same Azerbaijani oil and gas interests that funded the 2013 Congress junket. “Azerbaijan is particularly keen on presenting a positive image in Europe because it has needs significant European support for its flagship project – the Southern Gas Corridor – despite the regime’s serial human rights abuses, systemic corruption and election rigging”, Noted a group of human rights watchdogs including Platform and Bank Watch commenting on the scandal.
Cuellar faces a serious challenge from human rights lawyer Jessica Cisneros in a March 1 Democratic primary. Cuellar did not respond to a request for comment.