It's Time For Congress To Expel Henry Cuellar

Rep. Henry Cuellar is under investigation by the House Ethics Committee.

Rep. Henry Cuellar is under investigation by the House Ethics Committee. Tom Williams via Getty Images

Following weeks of deafening silence from congressional leaders, the House Ethics Committee opened an investigation into Rep. Henry Cuellar on Wednesday, after an indictment charged him with accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from Azerbaijani government-linked entities in exchange for political favors.

The Texas Democrat is seen by members of his own party as key to regaining control of the House and by Republicans as a reliable conservative vote on social issues, so leadership on both sides of the aisle have refused to publicly call for disciplinary action against Cuellar — placing politics before the imperative to confront attempts to subvert U.S. democracy.

While the House of Representatives has only moved six times in its history to expel a sitting member of Congress, it is hard to imagine a member more deserving of expulsion than Cuellar, whose actions have fundamentally undermined faith in the integrity of our democratic process. And given Azerbaijan’s track record of money laundering and “caviar diplomacy,” Cuellar’s scandal may be just the tip of the iceberg — warranting intense scrutiny of the extent of Azerbaijan’s foreign influence operations in Congress.

The magnitude of Azerbaijan’s global influence operations was first exposed by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project in its report on the “Azerbaijani Laundromat” — which found that, between 2012 and 2014, over $2.5 billion was laundered through slush funds into the accounts of European politicians and international organizations including UNESCO and the Council of Europe to suffocate criticism of the Azerbaijani regime’s abuses at home and abroad and promote Azerbaijan’s image on the world stage.

While Europe has been the most notable target of Azerbaijan’s influence operations, the U.S. has not been immune. In 2013, reports revealed that a congressional delegation to Azerbaijan involving 10 members of Congress and over 30 staffers had been paid for without their knowledge by SOCAR, the state-owned oil company of Azerbaijan. The trip was the subject of an Ethics Committee investigation — and ultimately led to the indictment of the delegation’s organizer, Kemal Oksuz, who worked closely with Cuellar to connect Azerbaijani oil executives with U.S. business leaders and elected officials.

This collusion went beyond money laundering and bribery, however, as the indictment against Cuellar alleged that Azerbaijani embassy officials regularly directed the congressman to promote Azerbaijan’s interests in the U.S. Congress — and block congressional efforts to support Armenia amid Azerbaijan’s assault on the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The indictment alleges that text message exchanges show that embassy officials instructed Cuellar — whom they unironically referred to as “boss” and “El Jefe” — to block legislative initiatives led by the Congressional Armenian Caucus that sought to hold Azerbaijan accountable for war crimes and human rights abuses. And on at least one occasion, Cuellar was allegedly asked to block the allocation of critical humanitarian aid to The HALO Trust’s efforts to remove land mines planted by Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh that posed a threat to civilian lives — something the authors of this article have long fought to secure. Cuellar has denied the allegations.

Cuellar and his colleagues on the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus often sought to bolster Azerbaijan’s image as a strategic partner to the United States. As an oil-rich nation, Azerbaijan has positioned itself as a solution to Europe’s energy crisis against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Bordering both Russia and Iran and maintaining close energy and military ties with Israel — which supplies Azerbaijan with 70% of its weapons — also contributed to the perception that Azerbaijan has a role to play in confronting threats to U.S. security interests in the region.

Ironically, despite the West’s efforts, Azerbaijan has deepened its cooperation with both Russia and Iran — serving as an energy conduit between the two authoritarian regimes, while purchasing significant volumes of Russian oil and gas in order to meet European energy demands. Not only have the U.S. and European Union closed their eyes to to Azerbaijan’s collusion in Russian sanctions evasion, they have rewarded Azerbaijan with lucrative energy contracts and military assistance, and even bestowed on the capital city of Baku the privilege of hosting the United Nation’s COP29 climate summit in a puerile attempt to placate its regime while ignoring the central role Azerbaijan’s energy industry plays in promulgating corruption and authoritarianism in the country.

It should be self-evident that the attempt to contain Russia and Iran by empowering an authoritarian regime in Azerbaijan — which has consistently been rated as less free than the very regimes it has been enlisted to contain — is a self-defeating premise. Yet this persistent belief continues to characterize U.S. policy toward Azerbaijan and has led Washington to neglect what Armenia says is Azerbaijan’s ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh’s entire Armenian population last year and ongoing occupation of sovereign Armenian territory. As a result, the United States has, counter to its own proclaimed foreign policy goals, abandoned Armenia’s fledgling democracy to the whims of Azerbaijan’s authoritarian regime. Ironically, in its misguided efforts to appease Baku’s regime, the West has emboldened Azerbaijan with impunity — and counterintuitively undermined U.S. interests in the region.

As a matter of principle, Cuellar’s alleged transgressions should have warranted strong action regardless of which government he had scandalous dealings with. But the fact that Cuellar appears to have chosen to act on behalf of a regime engaged in the torture of prisoners of war, the execution of civilians, the systematic destruction of Armenian cultural heritage, and the blockade and forced displacement of 150,000 Armenian civilians last year demonstrates a contempt not only for our democratic process but for the principles of human rights and international law that supposedly underpin U.S. foreign policy.

In light of the gravity of the charges against Cuellar, both Republicans and Democrats must realize there’s much more on the line than control of the House of Representatives. As the U.S. hemorrhages credibility on the world stage amid its abject failure to uphold the principles of democracy and human rights it proclaims to hold dear, the refusal to expel Cuellar will only signal to Azerbaijan — and other abusive regimes — that U.S. democracy is for sale.

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