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Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas is indicted on bribery charges

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

A member of the U.S. Congress, Texas Democrat Henry Cuellar, has been indicted on federal corruption charges. Cuellar and his wife are accused of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from two foreign entities. And in return, Cuellar allegedly used his position in Congress to take action on their behalf. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas has been covering this. Hey, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi there.

SUMMERS: So Ryan, what can you tell us about Cuellar as well as what he's been charged with here?

LUCAS: So Cuellar is a House Democrat. He's been in Congress for almost 20 years. He represents Texas' 20th Congressional District, so a big stretch of turf from the U.S.-Mexico border basically up to the suburbs of San Antonio. He is considered one of the most conservative Democrats in the House.

Now, as for the charges, there are a whole bunch of them - 14 in all against both Cuellar and his wife, Imelda. Some of them are conspiracy, bribery, money laundering, honest services fraud, public official acting as an agent of a foreign principle. And these are significant charges, and there is significant potential prison time connected with them. So this is real legal peril.

SUMMERS: OK. So I understand that this case revolves around bribery allegations, but what exactly are prosecutors accusing Cuellar of doing here?

LUCAS: So the indictment says that from 2014 up until at least 2021, Cuellar and his wife accepted almost $600,000 in bribes in total. And those bribes prosecutors say came from an oil and gas company owned by the government of Azerbaijan, and they also came from a Mexican bank. Now, prosecutors say those bribe payments were laundered pursuant to these sham consulting contracts, they say, through front companies and middlemen into shell companies that were owned by Imelda Cuellar. Prosecutors say Imelda did no legitimate work under those contracts. Now, in return for those bribe payments, prosecutors say Cuellar used his position in Congress to advance both Azerbaijan's interests and the interests of the Mexican bank.

SUMMERS: Ryan, did prosecutors give any details, any specific examples of things that Cuellar allegedly did?

LUCAS: They do, yeah. The indictment has a couple of examples. With Azerbaijan it says Cuellar agreed to influence several legislative measures related to Azerbaijan's conflict with Armenia. Prosecutors say he also agreed to insert language into legislation and reports related to security and economic aid programs. Now, as for the bank, the indictment says Cuellar agreed to do a couple of things, one of them being to influence legislative activity and to pressure U.S. officials on antimoney laundering practices that threaten the bank's business interests.

SUMMERS: And what about Cuellar? What has he had to say about all of this?

LUCAS: So he put out a statement this morning. He said that he and his wife are both innocent. He said before he took any action, he had legal advice from the House Ethics Committee and from a national law firm. And he says that things that he did in Congress were in the interests of the people of South Texas and also the American people more broadly. He also said pointedly that he's still running for reelection in November.

SUMMERS: Speaking of elections just six months away, what do you think the political ramifications of this indictment could be?

LUCAS: Well, his campaign will now likely be under the cloud of these corruption charges. We'll see what voters think of that. But Republicans have consistently struggled to find a strong enough candidate to unseat him. It's worth mentioning, I think, that Cuellar is not the only Democratic member of Congress facing federal corruption charges. Senator Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, also is facing bribery charges. Those are in New York, and Menendez is set to go to trial later this month.

SUMMERS: NPR's Ryan Lucas. Thank you, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.