Former aide and consultant close to U.S. Rep. Cuellar plead guilty and agree to aid investigation

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A top former aide to U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar and a political and business consultant have agreed to plead guilty to conspiring to help the Democrat congressman from Texas launder more than $200,000 in bribes and to assist prosecutors in a federal criminal investigation, according to court documents unsealed this week.

Colin Strother, Cuellar’s former chief of staff and campaign manager, and Florencia Rendon, a business consultant and former chief of staff for former U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz, struck plea deals in March to ensure their cooperation in a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into Cuellar and his wife.

The Cuellars have been charged with accepting nearly $600,000 in bribes from an Azerbaijan-controlled energy company and a bank in Mexico, in exchange for advancing the interests of the country and the bank in the U.S.

Cuellar, 68, has said he and his wife Imelda Cuellar, 67, are innocent.

In addition to bribery and conspiracy, the couple face charges including wire fraud conspiracy, acting as agents of foreign principals and money laundering. If convicted, they face up to decades in prison and forfeiture of any property linked to proceeds from the alleged scheme.

The plea agreements by Strother, 50, and Rendon, 73, are related to laundering money from Mexico. The agreements were ordered unsealed on Wednesday. Both men agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit money laundering. Strother faces up to five years in prison, and Rendon faces up to 20 years.

Investigators said Rendon and Cuellar were at a conference in Mexico City in 2015 when they hatched a plan to arrange meetings with executives of Mexican banks needing help with transfers of money from Mexican workers and to draft fake contracts for consulting services to be provided by Imelda Cuellar. According to the indictment against the Cuellars, she “performed little or no legitimate work” in exchange for payment.

Rendon knew the contract was a “sham consulting contract” and that the payments of $15,000 per month were made to funnel money to Cuellar, the plea agreement said.

Rendon would send $11,000 a month to Strother, who would in turn transfer monthly payments to the Cuellars of $10,000. From March 2016 to February 2018, Strother transferred nearly $215,000 to the Cuellars, according to the plea agreement.

At one point in 2018, Cuellar confronted Strother in a restaurant parking lot about missed payments to his wife, and Strother produced a spreadsheet on his phone to assure him the payments were up to date, the plea deal said.

“As long as Strother and Rendon tell the truth, we are not worried,” Cuellar attorney Chris Flood said. “At the right time the Judge in this case will warn everyone about the credibility of Strother and Rendon if they don’t.”

Attorneys for Strother and Rendon did not immediately return email and telephone messages seeking comment.

Cuellar and his wife surrendered to authorities last week and were briefly taken into custody. They made an initial appearance before a federal judge in Houston and were each released on $100,000 bond.

The FBI searched the congressman’s house in the border city of Laredo in 2022, and Cuellar’s attorney at that time said Cuellar was not the target of that investigation.

“Everything I have done in Congress has been to serve the people of South Texas,” Cuellar said last week. “Before I took action, I proactively sought legal advice from the House Ethics Committee, who gave me more than one written opinion, along with an additional opinion from a national law firm.”

Cuellar, one of the last anti-abortion Democrats in Congress, narrowly defeated progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros by fewer than 300 votes in a primary race in 2022.

Copyright © 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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