© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute
Henry Cuellar
Rep. Henry Cuellar pleaded not guilty to a raft of serious federal bribery, money laundering and foreign influence charges. Jose Luis Magana/AP

Henry Cuellar Aide’s Pay Shot Up After His Role in the Alleged Bribery Scheme, Records Show

Between 2016 and 2017, Colin Strother was paid through Cuellar’s congressional budget despite not having a clear job or title in the Texas Democrat’s office, three sources told NOTUS.

A top aide to Rep. Henry Cuellar saw a hefty salary boost after he began acting as a middleman for alleged Mexican bribes, a review of campaign finance and congressional spending records show.

Colin Strother — a longtime Texas political consultant and a close confidant of the Texas Democrat — was paid more than $25,000 out of Cuellar’s taxpayer-funded congressional expense budget in 2016 and 2017, spending records show. Three people familiar with the congressman’s House staff do not recall Strother performing substantial work for the office or having any job title during that time.

“It’s typical for congressional offices to have outside advisers that weigh in but aren’t on staff,” one source said. “I wasn’t aware he was being paid at the time.”

These outside advisers are often paid out of campaign accounts rather than taxpayer-funded congressional budgets. At that time, Strother was separately paid by Cuellar’s political campaign. Strother’s pay from Cuellar’s political campaign also climbed steadily: from $2,000 in the 2014 election cycle to about $20,000 in the 2016 cycle, to more than $34,000 in 2018, and again climbing to more than $65,000 in the 2020 campaign.

Strother pleaded guilty to helping funnel money from a Mexican bank to Cuellar through a complex financial arrangement designed to conceal the source of the funding — an arrangement that the Department of Justice alleges began in 2016. He is cooperating in the federal investigation into his former boss. Cuellar pleaded not guilty to a raft of serious federal bribery, money laundering and foreign influence charges.

Strother, who runs his own consulting firm from a small town outside of Austin, began working for the longtime congressman when he first ran for Congress in 2003. FEC records from the 2003-2004 cycle show that Cuellar’s campaign paid Strother a salary, and in 2005, he became Cuellar’s chief of staff.

He and Cuellar were close, sources said. One described him as “Cuellar’s whisperer.”

“But something didn’t seem right,” that source added.

After that initial stint, he was in and out of the office in spurts, serving in various adviser roles. FEC records show that he remained an adviser for Cuellar and was paid during each election cycle from 2004 to 2022 through Cuellar’s campaign account. But Strother’s time in the office in 2016 and 2017 surprised three sources familiar with the office.

Between December 2016 and November 2017, Strother was paid more than $26,000 — holding various titles such as “Temporary Employee,” “Part-Time Employee,” “Senior Counsel for Health” and “Special Projects Coordinator.” Two sources with knowledge of the office’s inner workings said they did not believe Strother’s work would have qualified for an office salary. Unlike campaign work, which is paid for by political donations, members receive a taxpayer-funded allowance to hire legislative staff.

One source said Strother would “occasionally” provide advice, but “nothing consistent.”

Another source remembered Strother often involving himself in the office but was likewise surprised he was paid.

“He’s the type of guy who would do kind of what a consultant does, which is like, they don’t do any actual work, and then they would just chime in with their two cents and then call that good,” they said. “It still doesn’t make it right.”

Attorneys representing Cuellar and Strother did not respond to NOTUS’ request for comment.

The indictment alleges that in March 2016, Imelda Cuellar, Henry Cuellar’s wife, began emailing Strother falsified invoices for a sham contract. In December 2016, Strother was brought on as a “policy adviser” and paid $4,000.

The indictment says money flowed from other co-conspirators to Strother regularly through 2017, most of which he allegedly passed on to the Cuellars. After that, the DOJ listed only two specified payments in 2018 and one in 2019 that went to Strother. He was last paid by Cuellar’s office in November 2017, though he continued to receive money from the congressman’s campaign account.

Sign up for the latest from NOTUS.

The House Ethics Committee announced Wednesday that it would investigate the congressman on the same grounds.

The committee said it would “determine whether Representative Cuellar solicited or accepted bribes, gratuities, or improper gifts; acted as a foreign agent; violated federal money laundering laws; misused his official position for private gain; and/or made false statements or omissions on public disclosure statements filed with the House,” in its announcement of the investigation.

“I respect the work of the House Ethics Committee,” Cuellar said in a statement, according to NBC News. “As I said on May 3rd, I am innocent of these allegations, and everything I have done in Congress has been to serve the people of South Texas.”

Casey Murray is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow. Byron Tau is a reporter at NOTUS.