WASHINGTON — Last January, FBI agents raided U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar’s home and office in Laredo, emerging with a computer and plastic bins and bags containing personal items in a stunning spectacle that occurred just weeks before a tough primary election.
The raid cast a shadow over a competitive election year for the longtime Democratic congressman who defended his seat from a progressive in the March primary and then a well-funded and coordinated effort to flip his seat by Republicans in November. Cuellar emerged largely unscathed — soundly winning his November reelection for a 10th term in office.
One year later, there have been no arrests or charges filed related to the case. Cuellar maintains that he was never the target of the investigation and will ultimately be cleared of wrongdoing. And the public remains largely in the dark about what set off the investigation.
“There has been no wrongdoing on my part,” Cuellar said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. “My focus remains the same from my very first day in office: delivering results for Texans across my district.”
Cuellar declined to be interviewed. The FBI declined comment for this story.
Legal experts say the lack of answers or information a year later by federal authorities shouldn’t be construed as either an exoneration or a reflection of guilt of anyone associated in the case.
Experts cited myriad reasons for the continued silence around the case: The FBI search may have yielded no evidence, indictments could be sealed, the case could still be developing or there may have been delays because law enforcement did not want to interfere with the recent November elections.
“The government moved forward at that point, but it’s not necessarily surprising that we haven’t seen any other announcements or any other information that’s gone public,” said Edward Loya Jr., a Dallas-based attorney and former federal prosecutor.
“It’s too early to draw any firm conclusions one way or another,” Loya said. “What we can glean from this is that the investigation appears to be ongoing, and the government hasn’t reached a resolution one way or another as to how it plans to proceed.”
John Bash, a defense attorney who previously worked at the U.S. Department of Justice and served as a U.S. attorney in Texas, said that the DOJ is under no obligation to publicly announce that a case is closed or that a subject related to the case is not a target.
“If they got new information that caused them to reopen the investigation, they wouldn’t want to convey to anybody that ‘No, we will never look at this again,’” Bash said. “But oftentimes, they’ll tell the defense they’ve been communicating with, ‘Hey, this is over.’”
Cuellar’s attorney has repeatedly said they were told by the Justice Department that the congressman is not the target of the investigation.
Gregg Sofer, an attorney at Husch Blackwell and former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas, said federal authorities are under no obligation to confirm publicly that Cuellar is not a target.
“There is pressure to do something like that in a case where there’s a politician involved,” but that is not typical procedure, he said.
The search has also had seemingly no effect on Cuellar’s political career. He beat his primary progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros by 289 votes. He was also successful in defeating Republican challenger Cassy Garcia in the South Texas’ 28th District in November.
While Cuellar is currently awaiting committee assignments in the new Republican-controlled Congress, he previously served on the Appropriations Committee, a highly regarded assignment in Congress. He also served as deputy whip to the former U.S. House Majority Whip James Clyburn.
Cuellar is a self-described moderate and is known to cross the party aisle to vote with Republicans. In 2021, he was the only Democrat to vote against a bill that would have codified the right to an abortion at the federal level. The bill passed the House but died in the Senate.
That the FBI would take such explosive action last year against a sitting congressman so close to an election intensified initial speculation about whether Cuellar was in the hot seat.
Sofer said the raid “was a very unusual thing to do this so close to an election.”
“I have to think there was some operational imperative to do this,” Sofer said. “That they thought, if they didn’t act then, then they would not be able to act ever.”
Following the raid, ABC News reported that a grand jury was seeking records regarding Cuellar, his wife and one of Cuellar’s campaign staffers concerning connections to Azerbaijan. Cuellar is part of the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus and routinely advocates for the oil-rich country.
In August, The Texas Tribune along with the Associated Press, Gannett, Gray Media Group and Hearst filed a request in the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Texas to unseal the search warrant used in the FBI raid. The newspapers also requested the search warrant application, supporting affidavits and any other records related to the case.