Rep. Henry Cuellar, a conservative Texas Democrat, has used his perch in Congress to push for funds for private prisons, drone surveillance, and increased border security enforcement.
The lawmaker has defended his record as part of his duty as a border lawmaker focused on national security, but emails show Cuellar acting at the behest of well-connected lobbyists for a government contractor.
Perceptics, a company that sells cameras that scan license plates, has frequently tapped Cuellar for favors since at least 2011, including a push to edge out a competing vendor, using its team of lobbyists and campaign contributions to curry favor with his office.
The close relationship with the lawmaker was revealed through emails that were published online last summer after Perceptics was targeted by an anonymous hacker. Colin Strother, a spokesperson for Cuellar, declined to discuss the emails and accused The Intercept of “an agenda and a bias.” Perceptics declined to comment.
The emails show the lawmaker’s name mentioned dozens of times as an ally Perceptics could use to sponsor legislation or write official letters on the company’s behalf. Lobbyists and executives at the firm referenced him as Perceptics’s “friendly congressman” and “our Cuellar firepower.”
Cuellar’s close ties to business interests stand out, even among other conservative House Democrats. Cuellar is the biggest Democratic recipient of campaign donations from the private prison industry, one of the only Democrats vote to delay regulations on payday lending, and has voted in support of the Trump administration’s agenda in Congress a record 75 percent of the time.
The lawmaker’s unusually conservative record has attracted a progressive primary opposition from Jessica Cisneros, an immigration attorney. The Texas primary is on Super Tuesday, March 3. The primary has attracted heavy levels of spending from progressive and business interests, with a political action committee associated with border security lobbyists raising thousands in support of Cuellar.
The relationship began in earnest in early 2011 after Cuellar, who has been in office since 2005, was appointed to the House Homeland Security Committee’s panel overseeing border security. “And here are the D’s….note Cuellar!” wrote Cristina Antelo, a contract lobbyist, passing along a press release announcing the lawmaker’s new committee assignments.
John Dalton, the chief executive of the company, was reminded in a follow-up email from Antelo that she had introduced him to Cuellar “at least twice, once at a fundraiser I hosted for the CHC BOLD PAC,” a reference to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s PAC. Antelo, notably, serves on the board of CHC’s foundation and has routinely hosted CHC BOLD PAC fundraisers over the last decade.
In 2011, Perceptics pushed to initiate an inspector general investigation against Axiompass, a competing firm that had been awarded a contract by the State Department to install vehicle identification technology along the U.S.-Mexico border. Executives at Perceptics believed that they had been unfairly passed over for the lucrative deal.
Cuellar stepped up to the task. The Texas lawmaker contacted State Department Inspector General Steve Linick on March 22, 2012, requesting an investigation over the agency’s procurement process.
One year later, Patricia Inglima, an aide to Cuellar, passed along a letter from the State Department to Perceptics’s team, confirming that her office had successfully encouraged the agency to open an inquiry. “I have just confirmed with OIG that the letter is in reference to the license plate reader technology bid and that the investigation is continuing,” Inglima wrote.
In 2014, the Podesta Group, a now-shuttered lobbying firm that once managed Perceptics’s lobbying efforts, boasted in a client report about overseeing a sophisticated effort to undermine the Axiompass contract. “Together, we successfully recruited allies in Congress who demanded that the State Department launch an investigation,” the report noted, offering further plans for tying funding for the contract to the results of the investigation.
During the following sessions of Congress, Perceptics lobbyists assisted Cuellar in privately urging then-Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, a senior lawmaker on the Appropriations Committee, to increase spending on U.S.-Mexico foreign aid designed to boost border vehicle tracking technology.
The plan was detailed in a document summarizing a call with Perceptics’s lobbying team. “Cristina sent the latest draft of our proposal for the Economic Support Fund for Mexico to a contact on Rep. Cuellar’s staff,” the document noted. The team also discussed a meeting between Mexico’s ambassador to the U.S. and Cuellar, to which “Perceptics would be invited.”
After a series of meetings between Perceptics and the lawmaker, Cuellar wrote a letter to Granger urging her to adopt $135 million in foreign aid into the following budget for the construction of specialized cargo traffic lanes enhanced with nonintrusive automated vehicle identification technology, a system Perceptics sold to the government.
Dennis Thompson, a program manager at Perceptics, emailed his team to note that “Cuellar personally and Cuellar’s staff have said that in conversations with Chair Granger and her office, LPRs were discussed specifically under the category of non-intrusive inspection technologies.”
In 2017, Perceptics lobbyists drafted a letter to be sent under Cuellar’s name to Customs and Border Protection, requesting that officials continue and expand a pilot program at the Laredo Juarez-Lincoln Port of Entry to use state-of-the-art license plate-reading technology. It is unclear if this draft letter was ever sent. A records request sent to the CBP has not yet been formally answered.
The following year, Perceptics lobbyists orchestrated an effort to push the Trump administration to incorporate an upgrade to license plate-reading technology into its border security plan. As The Intercept previously reported, Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., read talking points provided to him by Perceptics lobbyists as he questioned then-Customs and Border Protection chief Kevin McAleenan.
After Fleischmann spoke, Cuellar, who serves on the same border security committee, also brought up similar issues during the hearing. Lucio Alonzo, a lobbyist to Perceptics, forwarded the hearing video to Dalton, Perceptics’ CEO, to tout the firm’s success on Capitol Hill.
“Most relevant to us, Congressman Fleischmann asked about CBP’s plan to modernize its LPRs as we asked his office to do,” wrote Alonzo. “Later on,” Alonzo added, “Congressman Henry Cuellar asked about pilots going on at Laredo that sound a lot like Perceptics’.”
Throughout the interactions with Cuellar over the years, Perceptics executives and lobbyists continued to donate to Cuellar and sponsor fundraising events for him. The relationship goes back to at least 2009, when Antelo sponsored a breakfast fundraiser for Cuellar with Perceptics executives.
The Podesta Group, in regular updates to its client, reminded Perceptics to give to lawmakers with key oversight roles over immigration and homeland security, including Cuellar. Federal Election Commission disclosures show multiple donations to Cuellar over the years.
Americans for Prosperity Action, a group founded and funded by billionaire Charles Koch, has poured cash into the race to boost Cuellar, the very first time the Koch-backed Super PAC has interjected itself into a race to defend a Democrat.
Corporate trade associations funded with undisclosed business money, including the American Bankers Association, the National Association of Realtors, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which alone has devoted $200,000 to defending Cuellar, are all flooding the district with money to defeat Cisneros. Gilberto Ocañas, a lobbyist with the international law firm Dentons, also launched a new dark-money group, called American Workers for Progress, that has spent at least $720,000 on ads backing Cuellar.
Cisneros has out-raised Cuellar in direct donations, in part through national enthusiasm and endorsements from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. But Cuellar has built a deep campaign reserve, in part from his prodigious fundraising from corporate PACs. Cash from the border defense industry could play a pivotal role.
Earlier this month, CHC BOLD PAC, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus group affiliated with Perceptics lobbyists and other corporate lobbyists, transferred $250,000 to a Super PAC supporting Cuellar. On Thursday, CHC BOLD PAC is hosting a last-minute fundraiser in Washington, D.C., in support of Cuellar and asking attendees for as much as $20,000 each to host the event.