Houston woman is third guilty plea in Henry Cuellar bribery case

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, at The Texas Tribune Festival on Sept. 24, 2022 in Austin. (Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune, Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune)

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A third person with ties to U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar’s bribery case has pleaded guilty, according to a recently unsealed plea agreement, after the South Texas Democrat was accused of accepting nearly $600,000 in bribes from Azerbaijan and a Mexican bank.

Irada Akhoundova pleaded guilty to unlawfully acting as an agent of the Azerbaijani government and a state-run oil company, a violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, on May 1, according to the plea deal first reported by the San Antonio Express-News. Akhoundova admitted to facilitating a $60,000 payment to Imelda Cuellar, the congressman’s wife, who was also indicted last month.

For nearly 20 years, Akhoundova has served as the president of the Houston-Baku Sister City Association, a nonprofit that builds ties between the Texas city and Azerbaijan’s capital, according to her LinkedIn profile. The plea agreement describes Akhoundova as an active member of the Texas Azerbaijani-American community. The court filing states that she served as the director of a U.S. affiliate of a Baku-based company, from approximately 2014 to 2017.

Akhoundova is the third person publicly known to have pleaded guilty as part of the federal investigation into the Texas congressman. Cuellar’s former campaign manager, Colin Strother, and another consultant, Florencio "Lencho" Rendon, pleaded guilty to charges that they helped launder more than $200,000 in bribes from a Mexican bank, according to court records.

[Texans in Congress stay silent on Cuellar indictment, unlike with Santos and Menendez before him]

Cuellar and his wife were indicted on April 30 on charges of accepting payments from Azerbaijan's state-run oil and gas company. The couple allegedly laundered the payments through fake consulting contracts to shell companies owned by Imelda Cuellar, according to the indictment.

In exchange, the Laredo congressman allegedly pushed U.S. policy in favor of Azerbaijan, an oil-rich former Soviet country that borders Iran and Russia on the Caspian Sea. Cuellar allegedly helped add language to defense spending legislation to prioritize ties to countries in the region, including with Azerbaijan.

Cuellar also allegedly took money from a retail Mexican bank, Banco Azteca, and influenced members of the executive branch to work around an anti-money laundering policy that threatened the bank’s interests, according to the indictment.

According to Akhoundova’s plea agreement, Imelda Cuellar was acting as the owner of a consulting company, when she allegedly submitted falsified invoices to a Texas-based affiliate of an Azerbaijani company — run by Akhoundova. Cuellar received the payment in December 2014, despite not having done any work for Akhoundova’s company.

“Akhoundova believed that disbursing the $60,000 was in the interest of Oil Company 1 and the Government of Azerbaijan,” the plea agreement read, referring to the State Oil Company of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

The plea deal also outlines other actions Akhoundova undertook on behalf of the Azerbaijani government, including the creation of a U.S-based company.

In 2020, Akhoundova received emails from an Azerbaijani government agency to organize a campaign in the U.S. to influence the U.S. public’s opinion about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Azerbaijan had been engaged in a long-running border dispute with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave made up of largely ethnic Armenians, until Azerbaijan forcibly retook control of the territory last year. The conflict had been a significant roadblock to peace in the region since the fall of the Soviet Union, with European, American and Russian governments struggling with the issues for decades.

Akhoundova agreed to testify before any judicial proceedings, including a grand jury, and provide documents related to the federal government’s investigation into Cuellar, according to the plea agreement. She faces up to five years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine — the maximum sentence for the violation she pleaded guilty to.

The Cuellars have pleaded not guilty to all charges.

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