Earlier this week, the FBI raided the Laredo, Texas, home of Rep. Henry Cuellar. According to ABC News, the raid was made in connection with an ongoing investigation linked to Azerbaijan. While little is known about this specific FBI probe, which CNN reported involves the Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section, Cuellar’s relationship to Azerbaijan is well documented.
In fact, an Azerbaijani organization Cuellar has had close ties with over the years was previously the subject of an FBI investigation, with its president pleading guilty to charges of wooing members of Congress by serving as a front for the nation’s wholly owned oil company.
In January 2013, Cuellar and his spouse flew to Turkey and Azerbaijan on a trip sponsored by an entity calling itself the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians, according to congressional disclosure reports. The trip for the Cuellars cost just south of $20,000 and was approved by the House Ethics Committee.
Kemal Oksuz, listed as Turquoise Council president, told the Ethics Committee that no foreign money paid for the trip, according to disclosures, but that claim is questionable given events that unfolded not long after.
In 2018, Oksuz pleaded guilty to concealing the fact that a separate congressional trip in May 2013 to Azerbaijan had been funded by a foreign government; he was sentenced in 2019. Oksuz had claimed that the trip in question was paid for by the Turquoise Council and the Assembly of the Friends of Azerbaijan, both of which purport to promote regional and transnational cooperation. In truth, the trip was paid for by SOCAR, the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic, a wholly owned national oil and gas company.
Court documents show that Oksuz wired $750,000 from SOCAR in order to organize travel for 10 House members and their staff to Azerbaijan. (Cuellar did not go on this second trip.) Prior to this deposit, the Assembly of the Friends of Azerbaijan, one of the nonprofits involved in the travel scheme, had only $283.15 in its checking account.
The Assembly of the Friends of Azerbaijan was founded shortly after Cuellar’s January trip, but Oksuz served as head of both, and as the Office of Congressional Ethics later reported, “Records suggest that this individual used the entities interchangeably.” And Cuellar’s itinerary for the January 2013 trip, on file with the Ethics Committee, shows a “briefing” at SOCAR and, later that evening, “dinner with SOCAR Executive Team.”
The relationship bore fruit. In July 2013, Cuellar spoke at a Washington, D.C., reception in honor of SOCAR, along with its president, Rovnag Abdullayev, to highlight the importance of a pipeline to deliver natural gas to Europe.
That pipeline and related projects are pivotal to the national interests of Azerbaijan. SOCAR is the largest company and source of tax revenue in Azerbaijan. The company has embarked on ambitious plans to expand its international footprint, including a network of pipelines that stretch through multiple countries to deliver gas into Europe. The so-called Southern Gas Corridor, built by SOCAR in partnership with BP and other Western energy giants, required an investment of over $45 billion.
Later that year, in September 2013, Cuellar and other lawmakers sponsored a resolution in Congress expressing support for Azerbaijan’s Southern Gas Corridor project, stating that it was in the “U.S. national interest” to support construction and work closely with the governments of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and others in the region to have the pipeline completed. The resolution was adopted by the House Foreign Affairs Committee by unanimous consent. In 2020, a portion of the pipeline across the Adriatic Sea began commercial operations to deliver gas from Azerbaijan to Italy.
“My thanks to Congressman Cuellar for his playing a very instrumental role for this affiliation.”
In April 2015, Cuellar announced an affiliation agreement between Texas A&M International University and the Assembly of the Friends of Azerbaijan, described in a Cuellar press release as an “educational and cultural organization” — but which we now know, by Oksuz’s admittance, was a front for the Azerbaijan oil company.
“My thanks to Congressman Cuellar for his playing a very instrumental role for this affiliation,” Oksuz is quoted saying in Cuellar’s press release. “He is the cause of this TAMIU-AFAZ Affiliation Agreement. This agreement will give a very ample opportunity to TAMIU faculty and students not only they will study international energy law, politics of energy, environmental impacts and strategy management, but also they will meet and network with people from public and private sectors.”
In May 2015, the Office of Congressional Ethics published a report detailing the funding violation orchestrated by Oksuz. The FBI began probing too. In announcing his eventual guilty plea, the Department of Justice said that Oksuz had laid bare the scheme:
According to admissions made in connection with his guilty plea, Oksuz lied on disclosure forms filed with the Ethics Committee prior to, and following, a privately sponsored Congressional trip to Azerbaijan. Oksuz falsely represented and certified on required disclosure forms that the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasions (TCAE), the Houston non-profit for which Oksuz was president, had not accepted funding for the Congressional trip from any outside sources. Oksuz admitted to, in truth, orchestrating a scheme to funnel money to fund the trip from the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR), the wholly state-owned national oil and gas company of Azerbaijan, and then concealed the true source of funding, which violated House travel regulations.
Oksuz was also a campaign donor to Cuellar, records show. The Cuellar campaign received $1,000 from Oksuz in June 2012 and another $2,500 in February 2015.
Cuellar, a co-chair of the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus, continued to promote Azerbaijan’s interests. Following the devastating Armenia-Azerbaijan War in 2020, fought over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, Cuellar petitioned his congressional colleagues to ensure that any humanitarian aid for the conflict would be “provided through the Government of Azerbaijan or U.N. organizations” and not given directly to Armenia.
A letter making the funding request, signed by Cuellar, was circulated by the BGR Group, a lobbying firm that represents the Azerbaijani Embassy, according to records on file with the Department of Justice.
Azerbaijan has been caught up in repeated scandals around the world in which it has been probed for attempting to bribe legislators. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe released a report in 2018 saying that its former members had engaged in “corruptive activities” with the Azerbaijan government. The German Bundestag last year also backed a corruption probe, according to Transparency International, after “the Azerbaijani Laundromat investigation showed how a network of slush funds financed such ‘caviar diplomacy’ through opaque payments to politicians across Europe.”
The gifts and payments to European policymakers were made in part to shape support for the same Azerbaijani oil and gas interests that had financed the 2013 congressional junket. “Azerbaijan is particularly keen to present a positive image in Europe because it needs significant European support for its flagship project — the Southern Gas Corridor — despite the regime’s serial human rights abuses, systemic corruption and election rigging,” noted a group of human rights watchdogs, including Platform and Bank Watch, commenting on the scandal.
Cuellar faces a serious challenge from human rights lawyer Jessica Cisneros in a March 1 Democratic primary. Cuellar did not respond to a request for comment.