Bribery Case Against US Lawmaker Implicates Mexico’s Azteca

(Bloomberg) -- An executive of Mexico’s Banco Azteca helped arrange payments to US House Democrat Henry Cuellar of Texas and his wife in exchange for influence in Washington, according to court documents.

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US attorneys accuse Cuellar of acting on behalf of the Mexican bank to loosen US rules regarding the shipments of US currency to banks in the US as well seeking to block “regulations detrimental to the payday lending industry.” The indictment unsealed last week in US District Court accuses Cuellar of pressuring US officials on money-laundering enforcement and seeking to change US money-laundering laws.

While the indictment against the Cuellars refrained from naming Banco Azteca, its description of the bank that allegedly paid $236,390 to the Cuellars includes several identifying details of the Mexican financial firm, which is part of the business empire of Ricardo Salinas Pliego, Mexico’s third-richest person.

Cuellar said in a statement May 3 that he and his wife are “innocent of these allegations.” Banco Azteca said in a post on X that “our operations are governed by the highest international compliance standards.

“Banco Azteca is, and has been since its origin, a leader in its commitment to security and the law, innovating and incorporating controls, processes and the most advanced technology into our service,” the bank said.

Neither Banco Azteca nor its executives or employees were charged under the indictment.

Salinas’s appliance dealer, publicly traded Grupo Elektra SAB, owns Banco Azteca and US payday lender Advance America. Banco Azteca has faced difficulty in finding US institutions willing to take the large amounts of US currency it accumulates in its operations due to regulations designed to inhibit money laundering.

An Elektra bond that is backed by cross-border remittance transfers fell 0.55 cent to trade at 89.95 cents on the dollar on Monday, according to Trace data, while Elektra shares slipped 0.4% to 1,108.84 pesos.

The indictment details Cuellar’s contacts starting in late 2014 with an unidentified top-level Banco Azteca executive and former head of the country’s banking lobby. That description applies to Luis Nino de Rivera, who retired earlier this year.

The bank executive allegedly agreed to pay the Cuellars, through shell companies, for supposed consulting fees, according to the indictment, in arrangements that were facilitated by an unidentified Mexican government official. Nino de Rivera didn’t reply to a request for comment.

A first draft of that contract included a bonus if Cuellar could connect Azteca with a US institution in a so-called correspondent banking relationship, according to the indictment. That explicit language was struck from a final draft that referred only to success fees for agreed-upon goals.

US prosecutors said Banco Azteca “needed correspondent banking relationships with US banks to help it repatriate large reserves of physical U.S. currency that it held in Mexico back to the United States and to convert the physical currency to electronic dollars.”

The indictment details multiple email and text communications between Cuellar and Nino de Rivera, reporting on the progress of the Democrat’s efforts with officials and lawmakers to influence money laundering and payday lender regulation. For example, over several months in 2016, Cuellar allegedly pressured a high-level US finance official and took credit for influencing policy on bank supervision.

The indictment also alleges that the Cuellars accepted bribes from an oil and gas company owned by the government of Azerbaijan. Cuellar said he and his wife are innocent.

(Updates with market move in paragraph eight.)

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