Through the years, Consultant Henry Cuellar usually harked again to the small home in Laredo, Texas. It was there that his mother and father, one-time migrant employees who spoke no English, raised him and his seven siblings to worth exhausting work and beware the risks of debt.

The references in speeches, marketing campaign commercials and interviews have been meant to forge affinity with the largely Hispanic residents of his hometown. They demonstrated that “I am one of you,” as his marketing campaign web site put it in 2004, when he first received election to Congress as a Democrat representing Laredo, one of many poorest cities in the country.

By 2013, these hardscrabble beginnings appeared a distant reminiscence.

Mr. Cuellar had grow to be the hub of a bustling small enterprise that blurred the traces between his political operation, his companies and his household, affording him trappings of affluence whilst he typically strained to make ends meet.

He had not too long ago bought a penthouse residence in Washington’s bustling Navy Yard neighborhood close to Nationals Park and a pair of properties in Laredo, together with a 6,000-square-foot home with a pool and cabana in a gated group on a avenue referred to as Property Drive. He took on an rising quantity of debt, and his internet price declined.

A brand new supply of money quickly revealed itself, federal prosecutors are actually saying.

Beginning in 2014, Mr. Cuellar and his spouse, Imelda Cuellar, accepted a minimum of $598,000 over seven years from a Mexican financial institution and an oil firm owned by the Azerbaijani authorities, in accordance with prosecutors.

The Cuellars have been charged earlier this month with accepting bribes, cash laundering and violating overseas lobbying legal guidelines by attempting to affect the federal government on behalf of their overseas paymasters. They pleaded not responsible and have been launched after every paid a bond of $100,000.

In a statement before the indictment, Mr. Cuellar proclaimed his innocence. Some of the conservative Home Democrats — and the one one who publicly opposes abortion rights — Mr. Cuellar vowed to proceed his marketing campaign for re-election, although the indictment made the seat a more attractive pickup opportunity for Republicans searching for to guard their slim majority within the chamber.

Two political consultants who prosecutors say aided the Cuellars’ scheme have agreed to plead guilty to conspiring with Mr. Cuellar to launder greater than $200,000 from the Mexican financial institution. A 3rd particular person, who labored for an affiliate of the Azerbaijani state-owned oil firm, pleaded guilty to acting as an unregistered agent of Azerbaijan. All three have agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

Eric Reed, a lawyer for Mr. Cuellar, rejected any “suggestion that there’s a monetary desperation that may create a motive for bribery. That didn’t exist.” Mr. Cuellar “lives inside his means, and like anybody else, his internet price goes up and down,” Mr. Reed mentioned in an interview “The truth that he’s had success doesn’t change his roots. He’s by no means forgotten the place he got here from,” Mr. Reed mentioned, including, “that is the American dream, and he’s in public service to make it actual for others.”

Mr. Cuellar, the lawyer mentioned, has adopted marketing campaign finance and ethics guidelines. “There was no quid professional quo,” Mr. Reed mentioned. “His actions on this matter have been lawful, clear and fully per the actions of a lot of his colleagues and constant together with his personal ideas and the pursuits of the nation.”

Mr. Cuellar’s indictment was solely the second time in trendy historical past {that a} sitting member of Congress was charged with appearing as a overseas agent. The primary, Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, has additionally pleaded not responsible and is about to go on trial this week.

In some methods, although, Mr. Cuellar’s story — as detailed in the indictment, marketing campaign finance filings, property information and congressional disclosure statements — traces a well-recognized Washington trajectory. Newcomers to Congress are sometimes tempted by the spoils of workplace and shortly discover their funds and political lives intertwined.

Deep-pocketed particular pursuits dangle political motion committee contributions and junkets, in addition to paydays for relations. In Washington, members of Congress are invited to unique golf equipment and black-tie gala features by donors, rich colleagues and lobbyists. Of their districts, they’re courted by enterprise homeowners searching for favor.

The lure could be tougher to withstand for the relatively small group of politicians from humble backgrounds who typically battle to make ends meet whereas balancing household lives again residence with the excessive price of residing in Washington a lot of the yr.

Mr. Cuellar prompt in his assertion that the Home Ethics Committee and an unnamed “nationwide legislation agency” had cleared his monetary exercise.

The proclamation, and his lawyer’s feedback, trace at a potential protection. They forged his habits in Congress as typical policymaking unrelated to any exterior pursuits. Mr. Cuellar’s assertion intimates that any funds to his spouse have been for consulting work based mostly on expertise that she was entitled to make use of to earn a residing.

Whereas there are pages and pages of rules proscribing exterior earnings, items and marketing campaign spending, members of Congress usually encompass themselves with sycophantic workers members disinclined to push again, in addition to refined attorneys who supply recommendation on navigating legal guidelines proscribing the spending of taxpayer and donor cash.

Mr. Cuellar assembly with Elin Suleymanov, the Azerbaijani ambassador, in a picture launched by Mr. Cuellar’s workplace.

“It’s an previous story. It occurs to individuals,” mentioned Jackie Speier, who stepped down final yr after 15 years as a Democratic consultant from California. “You see when their mild will get too shiny, their ethical compass has no solution to measure proper from flawed.”

Ms. Speier had been a number one congressional supporter of Azerbaijan’s regional rival Armenia.

The indictment doesn’t establish Ms. Speier by identify, nevertheless it refers to textual content messages during which Mr. Cuellar and his Azerbaijani contacts sought to neutralize her efforts to offer funding to Armenia, which Azerbaijan considered a slap within the face. She declined to touch upon the fees towards Mr. Cuellar, saying solely that Congress could be “an intoxicating setting.”

The spending detailed within the indictment consists of utilizing the overseas cash to repay $58,000 in bank card funds and different money owed, fund residing bills and make purchases together with a $12,000 customized robe for Ms. Cuellar and a $7,000 down cost for a brand new automotive. It presents a really totally different image of Mr. Cuellar from the one he projected again in Laredo.

Some constituents mentioned the Cuellars by no means showcased their wealth, whilst they moved to the gated group. Melissa R. Cigarroa, a Laredo metropolis councilwoman who has backed Mr. Cuellar by way of his current major races, mentioned the Cuellars, and particularly Ms. Cuellar, have been “not ostentatious.”

Mr. Cuellar has repeatedly informed the story of how his mother and father toiled for years as migrant farm employees earlier than settling in Laredo, when Mr. Cuellar, their firstborn, was a toddler. They raised him and his siblings on as little as $300 in month-to-month wages his father earned as a gardener, and his kids have been usually enlisted to assist with the work.

“Different children obtained up on Saturday and watched the cartoons,” Mr. Cuellar informed The Houston Chronicle for an article he posted on his official House website in 2014. “My dad informed us, ‘You end your work first.’ So we might be out on the morning time, mowing and raking, so we might watch ‘The Jetsons.’”

Mr. Cuellar informed The Chronicle that his father, who died in 2019, “doesn’t like debt.”

In a campaign advertisement, he mentioned that “I washed dishes whereas I labored exhausting on my means from Laredo Faculty to Georgetown College.” After incomes graduate levels in enterprise and the legislation, he mentioned within the advert, “I turned down jobs in huge cities and got here residence to Laredo to make a distinction.”

He began his personal legislation apply and was elected to the Texas Home of Representatives in 1986 at age 30, serving for 14 years. In 2001, he was chosen by Rick Perry, a Republican serving as Texas’ governor, to be secretary of state.

Alongside the best way, he assembled a small portfolio of rental properties in Laredo. He created an organization referred to as HC Leases to handle the properties, together with his childhood residence, which is owned by his sister, and the home subsequent door, which he owns. One other firm he managed, HC Air, operated a small personal aircraft he purchased earlier than his election to Congress.

His political operation got here to overlap together with his companies and his household.

Throughout his early congressional runs, his marketing campaign committee reported to the Federal Election Fee that it paid $11,500 in rent to his legislation agency and HC Leases, although the filings additionally present that Mr. Cuellar donated about $159,000 price of hire, workplace furnishings and gear to his marketing campaign. The marketing campaign paid about $92,000 to HC Air for air journey, earlier than he offered his aircraft in 2011 for as a lot as $100,000, F.E.C. filings and private monetary disclosure statements present.

His marketing campaign would later pay a complete of greater than $15,000 to his relations, F.E.C. filings show, together with his spouse, his two daughters and his sister Rosie Cuellar, a former Webb County official now operating for the Texas State Home. Mr. Cuellar’s brother Martin is the Webb County sheriff.

In 2013, Mr. Cuellar disclosed that he had taken on money owed totaling as a lot as $1.15 million, together with a mortgage that originally ranged from $50,000 to $100,000 from a donor to purchase one other property in Laredo. The donor, Rasoul Khaledi, owns a sequence of duty-free shops alongside the Mexican border, together with in Laredo, in addition to two elsewhere in Mexico. He and his household donated tens of 1000’s of {dollars} to Mr. Cuellar’s campaigns, and 4 of Mr. Khaledi’s kids got unpaid internships within the congressman’s workplace, as reported by the Center for Public Integrity. Mr. Khaledi didn’t reply to requests for remark.

When the loans began showing on Mr. Cuellar’s private monetary disclosure statements, he blamed the financial downturn.

“This recession has impacted all People — from farmers to small-business homeowners to public servants — and I’m not exempt from it,” he told The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

His internet price dipped as little as $29,000 in 2013, down from a minimal of $200,000 the year before, in accordance with an analysis of the disclosure filings by the nonpartisan web site OpenSecrets. (These filings require officers to record solely a variety of their property and liabilities, quite than exact quantities.)

It isn’t clear why the Azerbaijani and Mexican pursuits initially reached out to Mr. Cuellar, although the Azerbaijani oil business, together with the state-owned firm that prosecutors say funded the funds to the Cuellars, preserve a presence in Texas.

In 2013, a nonprofit funded by the state-owned oil firm organized and paid for a visit to Istanbul and Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, for Mr. Cuellar and his spouse. The journey, which price greater than $26,000, included briefings with officers from the Azerbaijani authorities and oil firm, meals and excursions of museums and palaces, in accordance with a congressional disclosure statement.

Shortly after they returned, Azerbaijani officials discussed as “a top priority” the necessity to domesticate relationships with members of the Home Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Overseas Operations and Associated Applications, which included Mr. Cuellar, in accordance with his indictment.

The “excellent news is that Cuellar was simply in Baku,” an Azerbaijani diplomat wrote to a consultant of the oil firm.

A few yr later, Mr. Cuellar and his spouse have been modifying a draft of an settlement below which the oil firm would pay month-to-month charges to an organization she had created, in accordance with the indictment.

Sylvia Bruni, the chair of the Webb County Democratic Get together, in a message to native Democrats, referred to as the claims within the indictment “distressing, casting a darkish cloud over all our sincerest efforts on behalf of our group.” However she wrote that the occasion would “stay quiet concerning the allegations, presuming innocence and trusting the justice system to work pretty.”

As information of Mr. Cuellar’s indictment unfold final week, constituents reacted with shock at allegations they mentioned have been so at odds with the person they knew. In interviews with greater than two dozen voters in his district, many described Mr. Cuellar as humble, hard-working or just “un buen hombre”: a superb man.

“He’s certainly one of us,” mentioned Juan Eladio Rivera, 68, a Democrat and retired carpenter in Roma, Texas. “Individuals wish to knock him out of energy as a result of he has been in workplace for therefore lengthy, however he has been in workplace for therefore lengthy as a result of he has finished good issues.”

Jazmine Ulloa contributed reporting from Laredo, Texas.



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