Cuellar has helped promote educational field trips to the country and co-chairs the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus.
TEXAS, USA — In recent years, students at Texas A&M International University in Laredo have been offered a rare travel opportunity: a two-week trip to Azerbaijan to study energy, business and policy.
The excursions were made possible by local US Representative Henry Cuellar, who touted the “vast opportunity to strengthen South Texas’ relationship with Azerbaijan.”
It is one of the many ways in which Cuellar has sparked particular interest in the oil-rich former Soviet republic. Cuellar has made his own travels there and is even co-chair of the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus.
This month, those ties have sparked new interest after Cuellar’s Laredo home and office were raided by the FBI. Authorities have not said what they were looking for and it is unclear if Cuellar is the target of any investigation. But ABC News reported that the raid was part of a federal grand jury investigation. Subpoenas reviewed based on the investigation by ABC News reportedly sought data from a number of organizations associated with Azerbaijan, in addition to three Texas-based companies associated with Cuellar’s wife, Imelda.
Cuellar made a defiant statement on Tuesday and police have not charged him with any crime.
“There is an ongoing investigation that will show there is no wrongdoing on my part,” he said in a video released by his campaign.
“I am proud to be your congressman and always do things honestly, ethically and the right way,” he added.
But the whole incident raised questions about why he was so eager to advocate for Azerbaijan, an ex-Soviet country with a difficult recent history on issues of corruption and human rights. Cuellar did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday and has not discussed his relationship with Azerbaijan since last week’s raid.
Azerbaijan has had a turbulent history since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It borders the Caspian Sea and is further surrounded by Iran, Armenia, Georgia and Russia.
It is predominantly Muslim, with an economy based on oil exports. But since it gained independence, it has had a reputation for corruption and dynastic leadership. The CIA World Factbook describes it as a place where “corruption remains a burden on the economy, and Western observers and members of the country’s political opposition have accused the government of authoritarianism, pointing to elections that are neither free nor fair, state control of the media, and the systematic violations of human rights targeting individuals and groups perceived as threats to the administration.”
Azerbaijan has a uniquely aggressive official lobbying arm in Washington, according to a dozen interviews with members of Congress and Capitol Hill officials. Some members simply put their names on a list called the ‘Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus’, but there is hardly a more committed congressional advocate for the country than Cuellar, who has been one of the co-chairs of the caucus.
In 2014, he and the Azerbaijani Ambassador visited the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio together, and Cuellar spoke of the “vast opportunity to strengthen South Texas’ relationship with Azerbaijan.”
A year earlier, he and his wife, Imelda, traveled to Azerbaijan for nearly $25,000. The trip was funded by the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurazians, a Texas non-profit organization. Over the next few years, Cuellar worked regularly with Kemal Oksuz, the leader of the nonprofit.
A few months later, a Cuellar staffer made an additional trip to Azerbaijan, which also included US Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston and nine other members. The trip was approved by the Congressional Ethics Office, but The Washington Post later reported that the Azerbaijani government’s state oil company had secretly funded the trip. Jackson Lee and other members who went on that trip publicly stated at the time that they had been misled and that the House Ethics Committee had approved the trip.
Oksuz was later accused of covering up the source of the funding. He pleaded guilty to the charges in 2018, according to the US Department of Justice.
The government stated at the time that Oksuz “falsely represented and certified on required disclosure forms that the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasions” had not accepted funding for the congressional trip from an outside source.
Oksuz and Cuellar also worked together on the Texas A&M International partnership.
But nowhere is Cuellar’s relationship more formally recognized than in his position as co-chair of the caucus. The caucus is a small, bipartisan group within which Texas has an outsized presence. There is no public official list of members of the caucus, but third parties have published previous results of the caucus and several Texans have confirmed they are part of the group. It is generally believed that the source of these members’ interest is related to the oil industry.
Inside or outside the caucus, Texans have shown support for Azerbaijan in a variety of ways, including writing op-eds, giving speeches and traveling to the country.
The US Rep. Filemon Vela, a Brownsville Democrat, entered the hall in 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea, part of Ukraine. He called for reinforcements of former Soviet satellite states in the face of Russian aggression. “Given the volatility and strategic importance of this region, the US must continue to work with its allies such as Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Georgia to ensure that their sovereignty is protected, especially in light of Russia’s actions in the Crimean peninsula “, he said.
Friendswood Republican US Representative Randy Weber agreed with concerns over Russian aggression against former Soviet satellite states.
“Sensible energy policy is multifaceted, and Azerbaijan is part of that equation, especially with regard to the discussion of neutralizing Russia,” he wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Times in 2015.
Fort Worth US Representative Marc Veasey spokesperson, another Democratic member, issued a statement: “Rep. Veasey has been an advocate of facilitating peace and harmonized relations in the Caucasus region between Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia and has also supported efforts to ease tensions in the region through his position on a US commission to monitor human rights violations.
Similarly, U.S. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, joined the caucus “in the early 2000s, citing Azerbaijan’s importance as a geostrategic partner,” her spokesman said.
Another Texan who appeared on the lists is Democratic US Representative Al Green of Houston, who declined to comment on this story. In all, there are about two dozen members of Congress in the caucus. It is a politically and geographically disparate group, with the only commonality being that its members are mainstream members of the Republican and Democratic caucuses.
But not all Capitol Hill caucuses are equally relevant.
For example, the Congressional Black Caucus, the most decisive bloc in Democratic House politics, meets regularly and takes advantage of its interests by operating as an organized unit. Very little happens in the Democratic Party without the approval of that group.
That is not the case with the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus. It is one of hundreds of causes rooted in problems, hobbies, ethnic background, or esoteric interests. Most of these groups never or rarely meet, as is the case with the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus.
For example, there is a Congressional Auto Care Caucus, a Bourbon Caucus, and a Congressional Writers Caucus.
Some of the more serious, foreign-policy-focused caucuses are made up of members whose districts include the expatriates of the country in question. Or maybe the members themselves share an ethnic background with the country.
Or, as is usually the case, a country like Azerbaijan hires a lobbyist to rally the support, and those lobbyists target members of relevant committees. In this case, the obvious members should recruit in committees dealing with foreign affairs.
Cuellar serves on only one committee, credits, where members decide where and how to hand out federal money. Within that committee, he specializes in homeland security and the Pentagon financing and could one day become chairman of one of those subcommittees.
Still, a congressman’s support for Azerbaijan could generate some backlash.
The country and neighboring Armenia have been at war on and off since the early 1990s, and the Armenian lobby is bringing bipartisan firepower to Capitol Hill, with support as varied as that of Democratic Speaker of the U.S. House Nancy Pelosi and the outgoing US Republican Representative Devin Nunes, both from California.
With hot tensions between the two countries, Congress’ support for one of those communities is seen as mutually exclusive to the other. The sensitivities are so delicate that Capitol Hill employees looking to join the lobbying profession will consider whether countries like Azerbaijan are among a company’s customers rather than defy their former bosses and their constituents.
The Armenian Council of America went so far as to release a statement amid the aftermath of the Cuellar raid, calling on members to resign from the Azerbaijani caucus.
At this point, none of the Texans in the Azerbaijani caucus have changed their mind.
This story was originally published on TexasTribune.org. The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, non-partisan media organization that educates — and engages with — Texans about public policy, politics, government, and statewide.