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For each of the past few years, students at Texas A&M International University in Laredo have been presented with a rare travel opportunity: a two-week trip to Azerbaijan to study energy, business and policy.
The excursions have been facilitated by local U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, who has touted the “vast opportunity to strengthen South Texas’ relationship with Azerbaijan.”
It’s one of the many ways that Cuellar has taken particular interest in the oil-rich former Soviet republic. Cuellar has taken his own trips there and even co-chairs the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus.
This month, those ties have generated new interest after Cuellar’s home and office in Laredo were raided by the FBI. Authorities have not said what they were looking for, and it’s unclear whether Cuellar is a target of any investigation. But ABC News reported the raid was part of a federal grand jury probe. Subpoenas reviewed from the probe by ABC News reportedly sought records from a number of organizations with ties to Azerbaijan, in addition to three Texas-based companies with ties to Cuellar’s wife, Imelda.
Cuellar released a defiant statement on Tuesday, and law enforcement has not charged him with any crimes.
“There is an ongoing investigation that will show that there is no wrongdoing on my part,” he said on a video his campaign released.
“I pride myself on being your congressman and always doing things honestly, ethically and the right way,” he added.
But the whole incident set off questions about why he has been so be eager to advocate for Azerbaijan, an ex-Soviet country with a troubled recent history on issues like corruption and human rights. Cuellar didn’t return a request for comment Wednesday and hasn’t addressed his relationship with Azerbaijan since last week’s raid.
Azerbaijan has had a turbulent history since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It borders the Caspian Sea and is otherwise surrounded by Iran, Armenia, Georgia and Russia.
It’s predominantly Muslim, with an economy based on oil exports. But since gaining independence, it has a reputation for corruption and dynastic leadership. The CIA World Factbook describes it as a place where “corruption remains a burden on the economy, and Western observers and members of the country’s political opposition have accused the government of authoritarianism, pointing to elections that are neither free nor fair, state control of the media, and the systematic abuse of human rights targeting individuals and groups who are perceived as threats to the administration.”
Azerbaijan has a uniquely aggressive official lobbying arm in Washington, according to a dozen interviews with members of Congress and Capitol Hill aides. Some members simply put their name on a list called the “Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus,” but there is hardly a more devoted congressional advocate for the country than Cuellar, who has been one of the caucus’ co-chairs.
In 2014, he and the Azerbaijani ambassador visited the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio together and Cuellar spoke of the “vast opportunity to strengthen South Texas’ relationship with Azerbaijan.”
A year earlier, he and his wife, Imelda, traveled to Azerbaijan, at a cost of nearly $25,000. The trip was paid for by the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians, a Texas-based nonprofit. For the next several years, Cuellar frequently collaborated with Kemal Oksuz, the leader of the nonprofit.
A few months later, a Cuellar staffer took an additional trip to Azerbaijan that also included U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, and nine other members. The trip was approved by the Congressional Ethics Office, but The Washington Post later reported the Azerbaijani government’s state oil company secretly funded the junket. Jackson Lee and other members who went on that trip publicly stated at the time that they were misled and that the House Ethics Committee signed off on the trip.
Oksuz was later charged with covering up the source of the funding. He pleaded guilty to the charges in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
The government stated at the time that Oksuz “falsely represented and certified on required disclosure forms that the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasions” had not accepted funding for the Congressional trip from any outside source.
Oksuz and Cuellar also worked together on the Texas A&M International partnership.
But nowhere is Cuellar’s relationship more formally recognized than in his position as co-chair of the caucus. The caucus is a small, bipartisan group within which Texas has an outsized presence. There is not a publicly available official list of members in the caucus, but third parties have published past tallies of the caucus, and several Texans confirmed they are a part of the group. It is widely perceived that the source of these members’ interest is tied to the oil industry.
In or out of the caucus, Texans have demonstrated support for Azerbaijan in various ways, including authoring op-eds, giving floor speeches and traveling to the country.
U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, a Brownsville Democrat, took to the House floor in 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea, a part of Ukraine. He called for bolstering former Soviet satellite states in the face of Russian aggression. “With the volatility and strategic importance of this region, the U.S. must continue to work with its allies such as Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Georgia to ensure their sovereignty is protected, especially in light of Russia’s actions in the Crimean Peninsula,” he said.
Republican U.S. Rep. Randy Weber of Friendswood concurred on the concerns about Russian aggression toward former Soviet satellite states.
“A sensible energy policy is multi-pronged, and Azerbaijan is part of that equation, especially in relation to the discussion on neutralizing Russia,” he wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Times in 2015.
The spokesperson to U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey of Fort Worth, another Democratic member, released a statement: “Rep. Veasey has been a supporter of facilitating peace and harmonized relations in the Caucasus region between Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia and has also supported efforts to lower tensions in the region through his position on” a U.S. commission that monitors human rights abuses.
Similarly, U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, joined the caucus “in the early 2000s, citing Azerbaijan’s importance as a geostrategic partner,” according to her spokesperson.
Another Texan who surfaced on the lists is Democratic U.S. Rep. Al Green of Houston, who declined to comment for this story. In total, there are approximately two dozen members of Congress in the caucus. It's a politically and geographically disparate group, with the one commonality that the members are mainstream members of the Republican and Democratic caucuses.
But not all Capitol Hill caucuses are equal in relevance.
For instance, the Congressional Black Caucus, the most decisive bloc in House Democratic politics, meets regularly and leverages its interests by operating as an organized unit. Very little happens in the Democratic Party without that group’s signoff.
That is not the case with the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus. It’s one of hundreds of causes rooted in issues, hobbies, ethnic background or esoteric interests. Most of these groups never — or rarely — meet, as is the case with the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus.
For instance, there is a Congressional Auto Care Caucus, a Bourbon Caucus and a Congressional Writers Caucus.
Some of the more serious, foreign-policy-minded caucuses are comprised of members whose districts include the country in question’s expatriates. Or the members themselves might share an ethnic background with the country.
Or, as is most often the case, a country like Azerbaijan hires a lobbyist to round up support, and those lobbyists target members on relevant committees. In this case, the obvious members to recruit serve on committees that deal with foreign affairs.
Cuellar serves on only one committee, appropriations, which is where members decide where and how to dole out federal money. Within that committee, he specializes in funding homeland security and the Pentagon and could one day be the chair of one of those subcommittees.
Still, a congressperson’s support for Azerbaijan can generate some backlash.
The country and neighboring Armenia have been at war on and off since the early 1990s, and the Armenian lobby brings bipartisan firepower to Capitol Hill, with backing as varied as that of Democratic U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and outgoing Republican U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, both of California.
With hot tensions between the two countries, congressional support for one of those communities is perceived as mutually exclusive to the other. Sensitivities are so delicate that Capitol Hill aides looking to join the lobbying profession will consider whether countries like Azerbaijan are among a firm’s clients rather than defy their former bosses and their constituents.
The Armenian Council of America went so far as to release a statement amid the Cuellar raid aftermath calling on members to resign from the Azerbaijan caucus.
At this point, none of the Texans in the Azerbaijan caucus have changed their minds.
Disclosure: Texas A&M International University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.