Henry Cuellar’s Corporate Ties

Henry Cuellar’s Corporate Ties

The Texas Democrat and members of his staff have unsettling links to the oil and private prison industries.

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It’s no secret that Representative Henry Cuellar, the conservative Texas Democrat whose home and campaign office were raided as part of an FBI investigation this week, has deep corporate ties. Cuellar, a nine-term incumbent, is known as “Big Oil’s favorite Democrat.” He’s a top congressional recipient of oil and gas money, as well as private prison industry cash, and has been caught providing favors to lobbyists. Business interests, from Koch-linked groups to the immensely powerful US Chamber of Commerce, prop up Cuellar. And he returns the generosity, using his power in Congress to cater to their preferences and safeguard capital.

It also helps when the special interests and corporations dominating the political system have a direct channel to the representative’s office. One of Cuellar’s recent chiefs of staff, Amy Travieso, has a particularly alarming history, swinging through the revolving door to lobby or work for several organizations that have heavily donated to the Texas Democrat—including the oil and gas industry’s most powerful lobbying group, which bankrolled a dark-money effort that backed his 2020 primary campaign.

Travieso first joined Cuellar’s office in 2011 as a deputy chief of staff, a position she held for nearly six years. After her first stint on Cuellar’s team, Travieso registered to lobby on behalf of two groups: the US Chamber of Commerce, where she served as director of congressional and public affairs from February 2017 to December 2017, and the American Hotel and Lodging Association, where she was the vice president of government affairs from January 2018 to June 2020. While working for these organizations, Travieso lobbied for at least 10 pieces of legislation that Cuellar either cosponsored or voted for, according to OpenSecrets data. In many of these cases, Cuellar was one of a small handful of Democrats voting for Republican-sponsored policies, including votes to kill environmental regulations, stop worker protections, and undermine the Affordable Care Act. Travieso lobbied against the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, Democrats’ sweeping labor reform legislation. Cuellar just happened to be one of seven Democrats to eventually vote against it.

But Travieso wasn’t done, and spun through the revolving door yet again. She went back to Cuellar’s office in June 2020, this time as his chief of staff. A year later, she left the high-ranking position to join the American Petroleum Institute, where she’s currently senior director for federal relations. Though she’s not officially registered as a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute, its federal relations team is dedicated to advancing “the organization’s advocacy goals in Washington,” according to its website.

Since 2011, the American Petroleum Institute has contributed $17,000 directly to Cuellar’s campaign committee. During the 2020 primary, the American Petroleum Institute gave over a million dollars to a mysterious dark-money group, American Workers for Progress, that poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into boosting Cuellar in the final weeks of the wildly competitive race.

The three lobbying groups Travieso has worked for have given nearly $80,000 to Cuellar’s campaign, and ramped up the contributions in recent election cycles, according to Federal Election Commission filings. The American Hotel and Lodging Association gave Cuellar $2,000 in the 2008 cycle, but its spending shot up in 2016. In the 2018 and 2020 cycles, when Travieso worked there, the hotel industry group spent a total of $20,000 on Cuellar’s reelection campaigns.

Cuellar, whose district has some of the highest rates of poverty in the country, was also instrumental in sabotaging President Joe Biden’s signature social safety net proposal. As a member of the “unbreakable nine,” Cuellar worked alongside groups like the Chamber of Commerce to kill Build Back Better. In fact, the Chamber of Commerce ran Facebook ads thanking him for blocking the president’s climate and poverty alleviation agenda.

His cozy relationship with corporate America and unusually conservative politics (as the most anti-choice Democrat in the House) are what inspired a progressive primary challenge in his South Texas district to begin with. Jessica Cisneros, a 28-year-old progressive immigration attorney, nearly beat him as a first-time candidate in 2020, and faces him again in the state’s March 1 primaries.

The FBI has declined to provide specifics about the investigation or the raids of Cuellar’s home and campaign office, which are reportedly tied to a broader probe regarding Azerbaijan and a group of US businessmen who have ties to the country. And as The Intercept revealed this week, another close Cuellar aide, Colin Strother, likely broke the law when he teamed up with anti-abortion extremists to launch a dark-money group in December to help the congressman in the 2022 primary. Strother, who was paid by the campaign in August 2021, also leads the Voter Education Foundation, which sponsored ads against Cisneros. The Cuellar campaign did not respond to The Nation’s request for comment.

But Democratic Party leaders aren’t going to let a little FBI raid or potential campaign finance law violation get in the way of their election strategy. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi went out of her way to get Cuellar over the finish line in 2020, and is generally unfazed by legalized corruption. Just hours before the FBI showed up at his door, Cuellar racked up another big endorsement, this one from majority leader Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House.

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