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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Can indicted Texas Democrat Henry Cuellar survive corruption charges?

A federal indictment against U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, an eight-term Democrat from Texas, alleges he accepted almost $600,000 in bribes to advance the interests of the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan and a bank in Mexico. (Tom Brenner/Getty Images/TNS)  (Tom Brenner/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Joseph Morton Dallas Morning News

WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar insists he has no intention of stepping down since being indicted on federal charges accusing him of taking nearly $600,000 in bribes.

“No, no, no, no, no,” Cuellar told reporters asking if he was contemplating resignation after the indictment was announced May 3. “Everybody’s innocent until proven otherwise and we are going to continue doing our job.”

He stood by that position this week after it was revealed federal prosecutors have secured guilty pleas from three people in connection with the case against him. He and his wife, Imelda Cuellar, are accused of participating in schemes involving bribery, illegal foreign influence and money laundering. Cuellar denies the allegations.

The federal indictment alleges the Democrat from Laredo accepted almost $600,000 in bribes to advance the interests of the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan and a bank in Mexico.

The most serious charges carry a maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison.

Former top Cuellar aide Colin Strother and political consultant Florencio Rendon are cooperating with the federal investigation, according to plea agreements filed in March.

Strother’s attorney declined comment. Rendon’s attorney said he could not immediately comment.

The Associated Press reported this week that a third person pleaded guilty May 1 in Houston federal court to acting as an agent for Azerbaijan without registering with federal officials.

CNN confronted Cuellar on Capitol Hill this week about the guilty pleas, but the Texan said he isn’t going anywhere.

“We’re not afraid of the truth,” said Cuellar, who is on the November ballot as he seeks an 11th two-year term.

Other politicians have won reelection with pending indictments, including Ken Paxton, Texas’ Republican attorney general.

Two Republicans, Jay Furman and Lazaro Garza Jr., are competing in a May 28 runoff to determine who will face Cuellar in November.

It is unclear how much Republicans will spend on the race, having seen challengers fall short in previous bids against the incumbent.

Cuellar faced a close call in the 2022 Democratic primary but won by 13.3 percentage points that November.

After the indictment was unsealed, the National Republican Congressional Committee pounced, calling for Cuellar’s fellow Democrats to push for his resignation. U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., did so, but he’s a striking exception.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., said Thursday he had not rescinded his endorsement of Cuellar and he wanted to give the Texan time and space to “work out his legal situation” without wading into politics.

“I support Henry Cuellar’s right to a trial by jury,” Jeffries said. “He is innocent until proven guilty.”

The George Santos precedent

The NRCC accused Democrats of hypocrisy for pressing to oust U.S. Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., over his own criminal charges.

U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, D-Dallas, said it’s a sign of a healthy democracy when those in power are held to account. He pointed to an initial failed vote to kick out Santos, which Allred opposed, citing a lack of due process.

Allred joined others in voting for Santos’ successful expulsion on a subsequent vote, after the release of a scathing report by the Ethics Committee that cited “overwhelming evidence” Santos used campaign funds for personal purposes and committed other crimes.

There has been no such report on Cuellar.

“Due process still has to be observed,” Allred said.

U.S. Rep. Jasmine Crockett, D-Dallas, noted Cuellar said he sought and received legal opinions from the Ethics Committee before taking actions cited in the indictment.

“As a criminal defense attorney, I always go with the presumption of innocence,” she said. “So I’m hoping for the best.”

Republicans not going after Cuellar

Many Republicans in Congress, including those from Texas, also are inclined to let the legal process play out for Cuellar, an occasional political ally.

After news of the indictment broke, several Texas Republicans cited Cuellar’s record of working on bipartisan measures and his penchant for breaking with his party over his opposition to abortion rights, support for tougher border security measures and other issues.

“I know Henry to be a really good man, and for whatever he’s going through, I feel sorry for him,” said U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Willow Park. “He’s well-liked. He’s a good man and he thinks a lot like conservatives do on certain issues.”

Williams said he has been Cuellar’s friend for many years and remains one, noting that he served as Texas secretary of state after Cuellar held the position.

U.S. Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Amarillo, also called the Democrat a friend.

“I know they’ve been coming after him for a while,” Jackson said. “They come after him, in part, because he does on occasion vote with us.”

U.S. Rep. August Pfluger, R-San Angelo, called Cuellar a “great member to work with” on issues from energy to agriculture.

Across the Capitol, both Republican U.S. senators from Texas spoke positively about working with Cuellar on various issues.

Sen. Ted Cruz said the allegations are “serious” and “concerning,” but he also highlighted issues of agreement, such as streamlining approval of new U.S.-Mexico bridges across the Rio Grande and designating a new interstate corridor running from Laredo through West Texas.

“He has been a strong partner fighting for jobs in Texas, and together we’ve gotten a lot accomplished for the state,” Cruz said.

Cruz, who wrote a book accusing Democrats of “weaponizing” the justice system, said it’s fair to ask whether the case against Cuellar is politically motivated.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn said he’s enjoyed working with Cuellar and feels for him, but the matter is up to the courts.

“Henry has always been a bipartisan individual and he’s one of the very few pro-life (Democratic) House members and frankly, you know, you can see where he may be in disfavor by the current administration,” Cornyn said.