Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar’s longtime ties to convicted Azerbaijani businessman examined in FBI investigation


WASHINGTON — Texas Congressman Henry Cuellar, whose Laredo home and campaign headquarters were searched by FBI agents this week, has ties to a Houston-based businessman who was convicted of lied to Congress about Azerbaijan’s role in funding a 2013 trip to the West Asian nation for 10 lawmakers, according to federal records.

Kemal Oksuz, who pleaded guilty in the case, was a regular campaign donor to Cuellar and other Texas politicians, and in 2015 hired Cuellar to partner Texas A&M International University with the Assembly of Friends of Azerbaijan, one of the non-profit organizations used to help channel the money for this trip.

“My thanks to Congressman Cuellar for his very instrumental role in this affiliation,” Oksuz said in a statement at the time.

It’s unclear why the FBI is investigating Cuellar now, but ABC News reported it was part of a wide-ranging federal investigation involving the former Soviet state and several American businessmen. Cuellar and his wife received subpoenas seeking information, including documents related to Oksuz and the State Oil Company of the Republic of Azerbaijan, ABC reported on Friday.

Oksuz pleaded guilty in 2018 to illegally embezzling Congress travel money from the State Oil Company of the Republic of Azerbaijan, or SOCAR, through his Azerbaijan-based nonprofits. Houston, which included the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians.

Four members of the Texas delegation were on a trip in May 2013 to the Azerbaijani capital, Baku. Cuellar was not one of them.

Cuellar took a trip to Baku funded by the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians four months earlier, in January 2013, according to congressional travel records. The group paid more than $25,000 for an eight-day trip for Cuellar and his wife, which included a stopover in Istanbul, records show.

Cuellar — who served as co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Azerbaijan and has met with Azerbaijani officials including Ambassador Elin Suleymanov — did not respond to a request for comment on Friday; Oksuz could not be reached for comment.

Cuellar’s name has not surfaced in media coverage of the Oksuz case. No member of Congress has been charged. Oksuz was sentenced to two years probation and ordered to pay a $20,000 fine.

Texas congressmen who attended the Baku conference – including Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston and retired Republican congressman Ted Poe – said they believed their trips were legally funded by the organizations non-profit.

Oksuz was a regular campaign contributor to the Texas delegation members, according to the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity. He donated $1,000 to Cuellar in 2012 and $2,500 in 2015.

The 2015 deal between A&M and the Assembly of Friends of Azerbaijan, orchestrated by Cuellar and Oksuz, included collaboration on research, conferences and faculty and student exchanges related to the international oil and gas industry, according to an announcement made at the time.

A program under the agreement, which ended in 2019, sent Laredo faculty and students to Azerbaijan to attend the Baku Energy Summer School, an annual two-week certificate program.

“I am thrilled to see the university stay true to its international commitment by bringing together world-renowned academics and scholars to examine and better understand the petroleum industry around the world,” Cuellar said in 2015. “The South Texas has been blessed with an oil and gas boom, and it is important that we provide a framework for our students in this important and growing industry.

As for the current FBI investigation that led to the search of his home and campaign office, Cuellar’s office released a statement saying it will “cooperate fully.”

“He is committed to ensuring that justice and the law are upheld,” the statement said.

Azerbaijan, a key ally for Texas oil

Azerbaijan and its oil and natural gas deposits have been of great interest to the U.S. government and the country’s oil and gas industry since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The former Soviet state has been an important US ally in a volatile region and a key source of natural gas for US allies in Europe, reducing the continent’s dependence on Russian natural gas fields.

Over the past decade, Azerbaijan and other gas producers around the Caspian Sea have worked to expand pipeline capacity to Europe. The United States has been a key supporter of the project, known as the Southern Gas Corridor, said Jim Krane, a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute.

“Azerbaijan needed American diplomatic support to achieve this,” he said. “The main selling point is that it’s non-Russian gas that goes to the EU via the Caucasus and Turkey, crossing international borders along the way.”

Getting Azerbaijani oil and gas to market is vital not only for the State Oil Company of the Republic of Azerbaijan, but also for Western oil companies operating there.

Texas-based Exxon Mobil is part of a consortium that produces oil and gas from fields off the coast of Azerbaijan.

Exxon-Mobil owns a section of an oil pipeline going to the Mediterranean. BP, which maintains its US headquarters in Houston, operates the Shah Deniz, one of the world’s largest natural gas fields, located in the southern Caspian Sea off Azerbaijan.

BP also owns a majority stake in the South Caucasus Pipeline Co. The pipeline was built to export Shah Deniz gas from Azerbaijan to Georgia and Turkey. It starts at a terminal near Baku.

The United States’ relationship with Azerbaijan has particularly benefited Texas, which is the second-largest importer to Azerbaijan among U.S. states, according to research group Observatory of Economic Complexity.

As its role in European energy security grows, so does Azerbaijan’s power in the Caspian region.

In 2020, Azerbaijani troops recaptured territory held by Armenian forces since a war between the two nations in the 1990s. President Ilham Aliyev called it a “historic victory”.

“Azerbaijan appears to have found the right mix and mastered the delicate diplomatic balancing act needed to build and connect the lines while reclaiming long-lost territory,” Krane said. “It was impressive.”

Cuellar is one of at least seven members of the Texas delegation who have been listed as members of Azerbaijan’s congressional caucus. Others include Jackson Lee and U.S. Representatives Al Green, D-Houston; Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville; Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas; Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth; and Randy Weber, R-Friendswood, according to Legistorm, a firm that tracks Congress.

Eric Dexheimer contributed reporting from Austin.


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