The FBI raids took place on Wednesday, with federal agents reportedly confiscating several materials by the evening.
“Congressman Cuellar will fully cooperate in any investigation,” his office said in a statement. “He is committed to ensuring that justice and the law are upheld.”
The FBI has not released any statements detailing the purpose of the raid, but a report from ABC News stated that the raids were “part of a wide-ranging federal probe relating to the former Soviet state of Azerbaijan and several U.S. businessmen.”
Cuellar has been the co-chair of the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus.
In May 2013 — the same month that several other members of Congress took a controversial trip to Azerbaijan — Cuellar met with Elin Suleymanov, the former ambassador of Azerbaijan who ended his long tenure in the United States last year.
Cuellar was not among the congressional members who took a trip to Azerbaijan reportedly paid for by an Azerbaijani oil company, but other members from Texas including former South Texas Congressman Ruben Hinojosa, traveled with the group. The House Ethics Committee later cleared the members of Congress of wrongdoing, asserting that they acted in “good faith” and were misled about the source of the trip’s funding.
According to another report on the raid of Cuellar’s residence, the Public Integrity Section (PIN) of the Department of Justice is involved in the matter. The PIN includes the Election Crime Branch, which, among other election-law related issues, investigates campaign finance crimes.
A report from USA Today published in 2015 showed that Cuellar’s campaign “received nine $2,500 donations from out-of-state Turkish-Americans on Oct. 7, 2013.”
The USA Today report also detailed suspicious contributions that other lawmakers received from sources apparently tied to the Islamic Gulen movement, where individuals with low or moderate incomes were making large donations.
One of the individuals who contributed to Cuellar’s campaign was Bilal Eksili, who became the president of the Houston-based Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians, one of the primary sponsors of the controversial congressional trip to Azerbaijan.
Since the FBI raids of Cuellar’s home and campaign office, the effects are beginning to be seen in his reelection campaign.
The race is contested by both progressive Democrats who criticize Cuellar’s moderate positions and Republicans who aim to swing the seat.
Opposing candidates in the race have been cautious about making any accusations against Cuellar, opting to wait and see how events unfold.
“We are aware of the news regarding Congressman Cuellar and the active FBI investigation. We are closely watching as this develops,” stated returning Democratic primary challenger Jessica Cisneros. “In the meantime, we are focused on our campaign to deliver change to South Texas families and will not be making any additional comments at this time.”
The Justice Democrats, an outside group that has supported progressive politicians such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and is backing Cisneros, was more outspoken about the raid being a concern despite unclear reasons for it.
“The FBI investigation at Congressman Cuellar’s home and campaign office is highly concerning,” stated the group. “The people of South Texas deserve answers, and the Congressman should be transparent about the purpose of the investigation. What is he hiding?”
Similarly, former San Antonio mayor Julian Castro weighed in on the matter stating, “Rep. Cuellar is entitled to a presumption of innocence of any wrongdoing. But the working families of TX-28 who need a champion in Congress can’t risk losing a Democratic seat because the incumbent is under a cloud of suspicion.”
With less than six weeks before the primary election, the FBI raid could become a defining issue at play in the race.
Cuellar’s district draws almost a third of its population from San Antonio and stretches down to encompass Laredo and several border counties in South Texas.
The new district boundaries for Texas’ 28th Congressional District kept its advantage for Democrats nearly the same, with a Texas Partisan Index rating of D-57%, meaning that Democrats won the 2018 and 2020 elections in the district with an average of 57 percent of the vote.
Though Democrats are advantaged in the district based on recent elections, the third-most competitive seat in Texas is also in the sights of Republicans who are ramping up campaign efforts in South Texas.
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Daniel Friend is a reporter for The Texan. He participated in a Great Books program at Azusa Pacific University and graduated in 2019 with a degree in Political Science. He has studied C.S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy and in his spare time you might find him writing his own novel partly inspired by the series.