Two political consultants plead guilty in Henry Cuellar bribery case

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D- Texas, speaks on southern border security and illegal immigration, during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on July 30, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images/TNS)
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By Jasper Scherer | The Texas Tribune

Two political consultants agreed to plead guilty to charges that they conspired with U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar to launder more than $200,000 in bribes from a Mexican bank, according to recently unsealed court documents that show the consultants are cooperating with the Justice Department in its case against the Laredo Democrat.

Cuellar, a powerful South Texas Democrat, was indicted with his wife Imelda on charges of accepting almost $600,000 in bribes from Azerbaijan and a Mexican commercial bank. The indictment, unsealed last week, accuses Cuellar of taking money from the bank in exchange for influencing the Treasury Department to work around an anti-money laundering policy that threatened the bank’s interests. Cuellar allegedly recruited his former campaign manager, Colin Strother, and another consultant, Florencio “Lencho” Rendon, to facilitate the payments, according to court records.

Rendon and Strother both struck plea deals with the Justice Department in March, in which they agreed to cooperate in the agency’s investigation of the Cuellars. They each face up to 20 years in prison and six-figure fines for charges of conspiracy to commit money laundering.

The plea deals, which were first reported by the San Antonio Express-News, allege that Cuellar first asked Strother to meet with Rendon in February 2016 to “participate in a project to test and certify a fuel additive made by a Mexican company … so that it could be sold in the United States.” Rendon told Strother he would pay him $11,000 a month for the project, $10,000 of which Strother would pass on to Imelda Cuellar, according to the plea agreements.

Rendon paid Strother a total of $261,000 from March 2016 through June 2019, more than $236,000 of which Strother then paid to Imelda Cuellar, the documents allege. Strother concluded the project was “a sham,” according to his plea deal, because neither Rendon nor Imelda Cuellar “did any legitimate work.” Strother “understood that the true purpose of the payments” was to “funnel money” to Henry Cuellar without the Laredo Democrat having to reveal it in his annual financial disclosures.

Cuellar has asserted his innocence, releasing a statement Friday in which he said his actions were “consistent with the actions of many of my colleagues and in the interest of the American people.” He faces charges of bribery, money laundering and working on behalf of a foreign government.

Cuellar, a member of Congress since 2005, has considerable influence in Washington thanks to his long tenure and his spot on the powerful House Appropriations Committee. He was the top Democrat on the subcommittee that oversees funding for homeland security, a position he automatically forfeited under a House Democratic rule that requires a committee chair to step down if they are indicted on a crime carrying a possible prison sentence of more than two years.

As part of their plea agreements, Rendon and Strother agreed to testify “before a grand jury or in any other judicial or administrative proceeding when called upon to do so by the United States.” Each also agreed to turn over “all documents in his possession or under his control relating to all areas of inquiry and investigation.”

After news of the indictment landed, Cuellar affirmed that he still plans to seek reelection in November. Two Republicans, Navy veteran Jay Furman and rancher Lazaro Garza Jr., are facing off in a May 28 runoff to decide the GOP nominee in Cuellar’s district, which stretches from the border to San Antonio.

The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election forecasting site, updated its rating for the district from “likely Democratic” to “lean Democratic” in response to Cuellar’s indictment. Cuellar, often ranked ideologically as the most conservative Democrat in the U.S. House, won reelection in 2022 by 13 percentage points, though Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke carried the district by a narrower 5-point margin.

Two political consultants plead guilty in Henry Cuellar bribery case” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Rep. Cuellar paid taxes, credit card debt with bribery proceeds, feds say