SAN ANTONIO — The FBI raid at U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar's home is part of an ongoing investigation into possible crimes involving American businessmen and Azerbaijan, a source tells CBS News.
Agents took boxes and a computer from the south Texas congressman's Laredo home and office Wednesday, reportedly collecting evidence for a grand jury impaneled in Washington, D.C.
Cuellar, considered one of the most conservative Democrats in the House, co-chairs the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus.
The oil-rich country, once a member of the Soviet Union, is known for its "caviar diplomacy." As a lobbying strategy, local business leaders and politicians often host foreign diplomats on the Azerbaijan dime.
Campaign finance reports indicate Cuellar has taken $3,500 from a man who broke U.S. ethics laws related to a 2013 congressional trip to the country.
Kemal Oksuz admitted to funneling money from an oil company wholly owned by the Azerbaijan government into his non-profit, which paid for the congressional trip in 2013. He then falsely told the ethics committee a foreign government did not fund the trip.
Cuellar was not on the visit that got Oksuz in trouble, but the congressman flew with Oksuz to Azerbaijan four months earlier with the ethics committee's blessing, according to The Intercept.
The congressman has also forged a relationship with Azerbaijan's ambassador, Elin Suleymanov. The two spoke in San Antonio at the University of the Incarnate Word in 2014.
"This is a really big deal," said Ryan Patrick, who served as U.S. Attorney for Texas's southern district from 2018 to 2021.
Patrick and two other former federal prosecutors also appointed by former President Donald Trump tell KENS 5 it's possible U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland personally approved the raid at Cuellar's home.
"It's very likely that whoever is in charge of this investigation consulted with the very highest offices in the Department of Justice," said John Bash, who served as U.S. Attorney for Texas's western district from 2017 to 2020.
The raid comes just four weeks before early voting begins in Texas. Cuellar faces a former staffer, Jessica Cisneros, in a race that's expected to be close.
The FBI does not openly investigate politicians before an election without intense deliberation. The director often limits overt investigative activity involving elected officials 60 or 90 days before a contested race, Bash said.
"The decision to do this at this time... this is either an incredibly serious allegation or a very fast-moving investigation," Patrick said.
Gregg Sofer, former U.S. Attorney for Texas's western district, says "it's not unusual" for FBI investigations of this nature to go on covertly for long periods of time.
"Before you go overt.... you generally have done your homework," he said.
Each attorney noted that the FBI had to demonstrate probable cause to secure a federal magistrate's approval for their search warrant.
In other words, the bureau had reason to believe agents would find evidence for a crime inside Cuellar's home or office.
It is possible, though, the investigation pertains to someone else's crime.
"The mere fact a search was conducted does not mean that anyone thinks the representative did anything wrong," Bash said.
"A federal judge has made a determination that there is evidence of a crime sitting in this person's house," Sofer said. "Can you have evidence of a crime in your house and not know about it? Sure. It's possible."
The FBI does not comment on investigations, so it's not clear whether Cuellar is a subject of their probe.
"With the proximity to the primary election, I have to assume they're working quickly," Patrick said. "This is obviously a very sensitive investigation."