Despite charges, few call for Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar to resign from office

Despite charges, few call for Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar to resign from office
By MATTHEW CHOI, The Texas Tribune

WASHINGTON (AP) - U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, is  facing charges of bribery, money laundering and working on behalf of a foreign government. He is the third lawmaker in Congress to face a federal indictment this session. 
But unlike his other embattled colleagues,  The Texas Tribune reports , Cuellar is not yet facing a barrage of calls for him to resign. 
Five days after he was charged, no member of the Texas delegation, Republican or Democrat, has so far called for him to step down. 
The few who have offered to discuss the case stress that Cuellar deserves a fair trial like any other American. Beyond Texas, only one member of the House, Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minnesota, has called on Cuellar to leave office.
The response is a stark contrast to the calls from around Congress for Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, to step down after he was indicted on charges of bribery over his connections to Egypt. 
U.S. Reps. Joaquin Castro and Greg Casarboth called on Menendez to step down last year. The two Democrats both declined to weigh in on Cuellar's case. Like Cuellar, Castro and Casar both represent districts that include San Antonio.
U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, also called for Menendez to step down last September, but she is barred from discussing the Cuellar case due to her seat on the House Ethics Committee. 
Escobar could comment on the Menendez case because the House Ethics Committee does not have jurisdiction in the Senate.
A host of Texas Democrats also voted to expel former Rep. George Santos, R-New York, after The New York Times uncovered he had fabricated much of his background and he received his own indictment for campaign finance violations. 
Six of Texas' 13 Democrats in the U.S. House voted to expel Santos from Congress last November before he had been convicted of a crime or the House Ethics Committee had concluded its investigation into his conduct (After the Ethics Committee unveiled its report, all but two voted to expel).
"George Santos should resign as Congressman-elect. If he refuses, Congress should expel him. He should also be investigated by authorities," Castro posted on social media after Santos was elected. "Just about every aspect of his life appears to be a lie. We've seen people fudge their resume but this is total fabrication."
Reps. Jasmine Crockett of Dallas, Lloyd Doggett of Austin, Sylvia Garcia of Houston, Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen, Casar and Castro all voted to expel Santos before the House Ethics report.
All declined to weigh in on Cuellar except for Gonzalez and Doggett, who said Cuellar was entitled to his day in court. 
Doggett added that Cuellar shouldn't be in a leadership position after the indictment and commended him for stepping down as top Democrat on the House Appropriations Homeland Security subcommittee.
"We have one of the greatest judicial systems in the world that would be able to hear and judge the case at some point," Gonzalez said.
House Democratic Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar, D-California, drew a distinction between Cuellar, a nine-term congressman, and Santos, a freshman with no public service record during a Tuesday news conference.
Cuellar "has deep relationships with Republican colleagues, Democratic colleagues," Aguilar said. 
"We know that he is a serious public official, public servant, and I think that's what sets this apart from other issues and the silliness of George Santos that we've had in the past and I think that's why many of us are treating this a little differently," Aguilar said. "The substance of the allegations are very different but the individuals are also night and day."
U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Houston, said Cuellar stepping down would be a "personal decision for him to make." 
Green voted present on the votes to expel Santos, asserting all members of Congress should be assumed innocent until properly convicted.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, which was eager to flip Cuellar's seat last cycle, demanded Democrats call on Cuellar to step down after the indictment. 
But Republican members have also remained relatively muted since the indictment went public.
Sen. Ted Cruz, who has a long track record working with Cuellar on bipartisan legislation, said though the "allegations are serious, we have a justice system that will resolve his guilt or innocence."
"Everyone is entitled to a presumption of innocence," Cruz said at an event in San Antonio. Cruz took the same position on Menendez following his indictment.
U.S. Rep. Monica De La Cruz, who is in a competitive race to hold on to her South Texas seat, and Former Rep. Mayra Flores, who is running against Gonzalez in another South Texas district, did not respond to requests for comment.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, who is challenging Cruz in the Senate race, said in a statement that the "allegations are concerning, but like every American, Congressman Cuellar deserves his day in court to be tried before a jury of his peers." He voted against expelling Santos before the House Ethics report was released.
Cuellar was charged with setting up fake shell companies with his wife, daughter and staff to receive $600,000 in bribes from Banco Azteca in Mexico and Azerbaijan's state-run oil company. 
Members of Congress are prohibited from simultaneously working as an agent for a foreign government, and the Justice Department alleged Cuellar coordinated with Azerbaijani agents to kill legislation that went against the U.S.'s interests.
Cuellar has considerable influence in Congress as a long-serving member and the top Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee in charge of Homeland Security. 
The position made him a prime target for recruitment by Azerbaijan, which tried to kill legislation that would finance removal of landmines in a then-disputed region with Armenia.
If convicted, Cuellar could face decades in prison. Cuellar insists on his innocence.
"Congressman Cuellar's actions in this matter-and always-were lawful, transparent and in the best interests of the United States, and they were entirely consistent with the actions of many of his colleagues," Chris Floor, Cuellar's attorney, said in a statement Friday.
Speaking with reporters outside the House chamber on Tuesday, Cuellar said he had no intention of stepping down.
"All I've done is to serve my district," Cuellar said. When asked if he took any bribes, Cuellar said "absolutely not."
The Justice Department has strict protocols on bringing an indictment against a public official, involving multiple levels of approval. 
The department is also sensitive to how indictments might impact elections. 
Cuellar is running for reelection this year in a race that was viewed as mostly safe for him before the indictment, though some forecasters have changed their ratings for the race to be more competitive.
"I'm sure the highest levels of the department were aware of, if not approved, consistent with the protocols internally, that an indictment was being brought," said Michael Weinstein, a former Justice Department trial attorney and federal prosecutor who was involved in political corruption cases.
Cuellar has been in Congress since 2005 and is a fixture in South Texas politics. 
He is often ranked ideologically as the most conservative member of the House Democratic Caucus and has built a reputation for impressive political resiliency, in part through his fundraising and his ability to curry favor across the political spectrum.
Cuellar faced a competitive primary from progressive immigration lawyer Jessica Cisneros in 2022. 
Shortly before the two went off to a runoff, the FBI searched Cuellar's home in a highly publicized raid that later was reported to be about his connections to Azerbaijan. 
He was still about to defeat Cisneros that cycle by 0.6 points. Cisneros also declined to comment on Cuellar's indictment.
Cuellar often works on legislation with Republicans and has even campaigned for them in the past. 
He appeared on television interviews with U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-San Antonio, who has worked with Cuellar on cross-aisle border issues. Gonzales declined to comment on Cuellar's indictment.
His resiliency has been an asset to Democrats, particularly as Republicans make forays into flipping more South Texas districts. 
Republicans often say the 28th Congressional District would have been far more competitive if Cisneros had won the Democratic primary.
House Democratic leadership rallied to defend Cuellar's right to due process. 
House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries said in a statement Friday that Cuellar had the right to assumed innocence and that he would be stepping down from his committee leadership responsibilities. 
A spokesperson for Congressional Hispanic Conference Chair Nanette Barragán, D-California, said in a statement Cuellar "deserves his day in court to respond".
The Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement that "anyone who is proven to engage in such practices must be held accountable regardless of party affiliation." 
But he added that "Unlike indictments against Republican candidates that voters must consider this November – these allegations are completely inconsistent with Congressman Cuellar's decades of distinguished service to his district, to Texas, and to our country."
Cuellar continues to see the fallout of his indictment. He is restricted from leaving South and West Texas except to go to Washington for work. He had his firearms confiscated and his chief of staff, Jacob Hochberg, departed the office this week. Hochberg is now chief of staff for Crockett.
Cuellar's former chief of staff and longtime campaign aide Colin Strother could also help investigators in the case, The San Antonio Express News reported.
The indictment did not charge Strother but alleged he had helped launder bribes to the Cuellars. 
Strother directed a request for comment to his attorney, who did not respond to a Tribune inquiry.
This story was originally published by The Texas Tribune and distributed through a partnership with The Associated Press.