How Henry Cuellar Used Campaign Cash To Fund a Private Plane

Funneled nearly $100,000 to company he used to register plane

Rep. Henry Cuellar (Getty Images)
February 25, 2022

Texas Democratic congressman Henry Cuellar used campaign cash to funnel nearly $100,000 to a company he used to register a private plane, public records reviewed by the Washington Free Beacon show.

From 2004 to 2010, Cuellar's campaign paid more than $91,000 to H.C. Air, a now-defunct company Cuellar registered in 1997 using his campaign office address. According to Federal Aviation Administration records, Cuellar owned a Piper PA-31-310 aircraft through the company. The twin-engined plane carries up to nine passengers and typically costs around $100,000.

In a 2007 financial disclosure, Cuellar identified H.C. Air as an "airplane rental" business valued at between $100,000 and $250,000. Outside of its partnership with Cuellar's own campaign, however, the company appears to have produced little revenue—Cuellar reported receiving just $2,500 to $5,000 in "S-corp income" from H.C. Air from 2007 to 2011. No other campaign used the company during that period, Federal Election Commission records show. Cuellar sold the plane in 2011 for up to $100,000.

Roughly a decade later, Cuellar is facing a difficult primary fight against progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros, who has portrayed Cuellar as corrupt and out of touch. Cuellar, who has represented Texas's 28th Congressional District since 2005, is implicated in an ongoing FBI probe into the former Soviet nation of Azerbaijan and "several U.S. businessmen," according to ABC News. FBI agents raided Cuellar's home and campaign office in late January.

Cuellar's decision to use his campaign to pay his own business raises "the possibility of abuse," Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust executive director Kendra Arnold told the Free Beacon. Under federal campaign finance rules, Cuellar is not allowed to use donor funds to finance personal trips taken on the plane. Cuellar's campaign payments to the company must also fall within a "fair market value." Given that Cuellar's campaign payments to H.C. Air nearly matched the value of the plane itself, he may have overpaid.

Cuellar, whose campaign did not return a request for comment, also spent donor funds on the plane during his brief stint as Texas secretary of state. From August to October 2001, Cuellar spent more than $10,000 in campaign cash on aircraft repairs, state filings show. Expenditures included an "engine change" and "landing gear repair." Cuellar's campaign has also paid thousands of dollars to his wife and daughter, and from 2013 to 2015, the Democrat spent thousands in campaign cash at a BMW dealership in northern Virginia.

This is not the first time Cuellar has faced scrutiny over his questionable campaign spending patterns. From 2002 to 2004, Cuellar loaned his campaign more than $100,000 with a 6 percent interest rate. As a result, Cuellar received more than $24,000 in interest payments from his campaign during the 2008 election cycle, according to a Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington report.

Cuellar and Cisneros will face off at the polls Tuesday. The primary battle comes two years after Cisneros failed to unseat Cuellar in 2020, losing by 4 points.