Home News Charges against members of Congress expose foreign government influence attempts

Charges against members of Congress expose foreign government influence attempts

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As tensions rose over the disputed territory in the summer of 2020, Azerbaijan’s high-priced Washington lobby scrambled to blame neighboring Armenia and highlight its ties to Russia.

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

Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar, who is currently accused of accepting bribes and acting as a foreign agent in a years-long scheme, said in a text that he plans to take Legislative action to try to deprive Armenia of funding because it hosts Russian military bases.

The Azerbaijani ambassador responded enthusiastically.

“Your amendment is more timely than ever,” Ambassador Elin Suleymanov wrote to Mr. Cuellar. “It’s all about the presence of Russia,” Suleymanov added, calling the congressman “the boss.”

Mr. Cuellar’s ​​legislative strategy didn’t go very far.But by the time the text messages were exchanged, his family had accepted at least $360,000 from companies controlled by the Azerbaijani government since December 2014, according to the federal indictment Unsealed Friday in Houston.

The 54-page indictment underscores the importance of U.S. decisions to foreign interests and the lengths they go to in trying to sway them in their favor, despite high risks and sometimes questionable results.

The indictment accuses Mr. Cuellar, 68, and his wife, Imelda, 67, of accepting bribes, money laundering and conspiring to violate foreign lobbying laws in their efforts on behalf of the Azerbaijani government and at least one Mexico City bank that paid them $238,390 Dollar.

The Cuellars pleaded not guilty Friday and were released on $100,000 bail each. In a statement before the indictment, Mr. Cuellar proclaimed his innocence and said the House Ethics Committee had cleared his financial activities. Azerbaijan’s embassy did not respond to a request for comment.

The charges against the couple signal that the Justice Department is ramping up its efforts to crack down on foreign influence operations despite recent high-profile setbacks.Jury and Judge dismisses case Related Unregistered foreign lobbying go through political figure Close ties to former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald J. Trump.

This is the second indictment in recent months charging a sitting member of Congress with violating the Constitution. Ban MPs from serving as foreign agents.New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez and his wife accepted A series of charges starting in October They are accused of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, including gold bars, to Help the governments of Egypt and Qatar. Mr. Menendez and his wife have pleaded not guilty.

In addition to the payments Menendez and Cuellar are accused of taking, Azerbaijan, Egypt and Qatar have invested heavily in traditional Washington lobbying to keep U.S. aid flowing and win support in disputes with their neighbors.

According to statistics, Egypt spent US$14.3 million on lobbying from 2015 to the end of last year, and Qatar spent nearly US$85.9 million. analyze The nonpartisan website OpenSecrets discloses information to the Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). The disclosures exclude donations to think tanks and other spending used by wealthy foreign governments to try to generate goodwill.

According to FARA documents, Azerbaijan spent nearly $9.2 million on lobbying at that time. During this period, the government retained approximately 20 companies, including those led by former governors. Haley BarbourMississippi Republican, former Rep. Bob LivingstonLouisiana Republican who served as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.Lobbying also involves companies run by Democrats, such as former Biden advisers Larry Laskypassed away in 2020, and fundraiser Vincent A. Roberti.

Azerbaijan’s goals include winning support for the reintegration of the tiny Caucasus territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which has been in Dispute with Armenia for decades. (Azerbaijan take full control of the territory September. ) Azerbaijan also wants Congress to repeal a ban on U.S. aid imposed in 1992 during the first Nagorno-Karabakh war.

Richard Kauzlarich, who served as ambassador to Azerbaijan during the Clinton administration, said that while the United States has issued exemptions to the ban since 2001, Azerbaijanis view the persistence of the basic ban as “a little insulting and injustice”.

“As far as Azerbaijan’s lobbying efforts go, I haven’t seen any signs of a return on investment,” Mr. Kozlalic said.He attributed this partly to the human rights violations Part of the reason is that the Azerbaijani government lacks an organized and active diaspora lobbying for the Armenian cause.

“No amount of money can offset the number of voters in California, Massachusetts and other places where Armenian Americans live, are active and vote,” he said.

Although European politicians Accused of accepting gifts and bribes from Azerbaijan and Qatari officialsProsecutors allege the payments to Mr. Menendez and Mr. Culler add a new wrinkle to Washington’s underground influence operations.

Lawmakers are in a prime position to help foreign governments. Mr. Menendez served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, while Mr. Cuellar served on the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the State Department budget.

Following their respective indictments, Mr. Menendez resigned as chairman of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee and Mr. Cuellar resigned as the top Democratic member of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee.Mr Menendez’s trial was Scheduled to start this month.All Vow to stay When they disputed the accusations, Mr. Cuellar said he planned to continue running for re-election.

The Azerbaijani courtship of Mr. Cuellar comes as the country’s oil interests, including state-owned companies that prosecutors say provide funds to the Cuellar family, maintain a presence in Texas.

Mr. Cuellar and his wife were invited to Azerbaijan in 2013, along with other Texas lawmakers. Prosecutors said he was briefed by senior government officials and attended dinners with executives from the state-owned oil company.After Mr. Cuellar returned home, he was recruited by Azerbaijani officials and began making payments to two consulting firms his wife created is called IRC Business Solutions and Global Gold Groupaccording to prosecutors and Texas company documents.

Prosecutors said the Cuellars used the money to pay off debts, pay living expenses and buy a $12,000 custom dress and a $7,000 down payment on a new car.

The indictment states that Imelda Cuellar “performed little or no lawful work in exchange for payment.” Instead, “in exchange for the bribe, Henry Cuellar agreed to perform official acts and violations of his official duties in favor of Azerbaijan and to act as an agent of the Azerbaijani government.”

Prosecutors said Cuellar’s services at the request of the Azerbaijanis included urging the Obama administration to take a tougher stance on Armenia, trying to insert language favorable to Azerbaijan in legislation and committee reports and having his staff urge The State Department renewed the passport of Mr. Suleymanov’s daughter.

Mr Cuellar’s efforts on behalf of Azerbaijan appear to have had little effect.He withdraws amendment to defund Armenia Objections From the Armenian diaspora.

“Would have been left out so I quit but they took the credit lol,” Mr. Cuellar texted Mr. Suleymanov.

The ambassador replied: “They take all the credit!”

After the indictment against Mr Cuellar was unsealed, the Armenian Congressional Organization of America called for “a broader investigation into these allegations and who else may be connected to how corruption operates in Azerbaijan”.

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