Elshan Baloghlanov’s LinkedIn photo

Inside the Secret Network Behind a Democratic Congressman’s Bribery Scandal

836
0

By William Bredderman and Riley Rogerson

WASHINGTON (The Daily Beast) — The Daily Beast has discovered previously unreported details behind the clandestine network that prosecutors say funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX). The network’s sprawling roots stretch from a consulate at the edge of Los Angeles to the glittering capital of a despotic ex-Soviet regime, and from the D.C. foreign aid complex near Foggy Bottom to a hydroponic farm in Maryland that supplied Georgetown’s leading bipartisan hangouts.

The bribery indictment of the Texas congressman describes, among other things, how the congressman allegedly struck a deal for his wife to receive $360,000 in “sham contracts” from the state-owned oil company of autocratic Azerbaijan. The feds say these arrangements ran through an Azerbaijani-born, U.S.-based intermediary — called “Individual-2” in the criminal complaint — and at times through his import-export business, referred to as “U.S. Company-1.” Cuellar and his wife have denied any wrongdoing.

Based on details in the indictment—including that Individual-2 served as Azerbaijani vice consul in L.A. between March 2006 and April 2010, resides in Potomac, Maryland, and formed a shell entity in Texas on August 22, 2017 — The Daily Beast can identify Individual-2 as Elshan Baloghlanov, which the The Texas Observer has also reported.

And U.S. Company-1 — which supplied $30,000 of the alleged bribe money — fits the description of Baloghlanov’s firm, WCC International, as the nonprofit transparency group OpenSecrets has also concluded.

Now, The Daily Beast can reveal that Baloghlanov’s relationships reach deeper than previously reported into the establishments of both D.C. and Baku, where Azerbaijan’s repressive President Ilham Aliyev reigns over an economy enriched by the nation’s vast energy reserves. And those establishments include some favorite haunts of the political elite.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

According to the indictment, Baloghlanov began the cash transfers to Cuellar’s wife in 2018, and his involvement in the claimed conspiracy lasted into at least 2021. It was at that same time, according to his LinkedIn, that the operative largely exited the import/export sector for a new, trendier venture.

“In 2018 somehow I ventured into a CEA (Controlled Environment Agriculture) business, which I strongly believe is the future of sustainable agriculture, aquaculture and food production,” Baloghlanov’s LinkedIn profile reads. “Now, most of my time is spent on growing food rather than moving a 40’ containers [sic] across the ocean.”

And that CEA looks to be Greenway Farms, an organic “aquaponic” operation raising greens and fish in the same water, located some 30 miles north of Washington, D.C.

According to Maryland business filings, WCC International’s principal office is at Greenway’s address in Gaithersburg. In addition, domain records reveal Baloghlanov registered the farm’s website in his own name and from his personal residence in Potomac, and using a WCC International email account as its contact point.

Multiple posts online from people who have worked with Greenway Farms identify Baloghlanov as its leader and founder, and his name and signature appear on paperwork submitted in Maryland to form a limited liability company in the farm’s name.

Meanwhile, a Russian-language page on WCC’s website promotes aquaponics and lists Greenway’s name, address, and contact information.

(Baloghlanov, WCC, and Greenway Farms did not respond to repeated calls and emails for comment.)

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX), right, meets with former Azerbaijan Ambassador to the U.S., Elin Suleymanov, in 2013.

Feeding Grounds

Whatever the reason WCC and Baloghlanov crossed over into boutique agribusiness at the same time the two allegedly directed payments to the congressman and his wife, Greenway Farms has forged its own relationships with Washington notables.

And one such mainstay is the glitzy Georgetown Italian restaurant, Cafe Milano.

At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in October 2020, Greenway posted a picture on Instagram showcasing bunches of fresh leafy greens with a caption directing onlookers to try them at Cafe Milano.

It is unclear for how long Greenway supplied Cafe Milano with greens or how the establishment first connected with the farm. (Cafe Milano did not reply to multiple emails from The Daily Beast.)

The restaurant is a staple of D.C. high society, proudly — and rightly — promoting itself as “a gathering place for Washington’s glamorous set.” President Joe Biden dined at the classy see-and-be-seen eatery last summer with his fashionable granddaughter, Naomi. As vice president in 2015, Biden took another jaunt to Cafe Milano with his son, Hunter, where he allegedly dined alongside Ukrainian executive Devon Archer and other associates. That fateful dinner has been at the center of the GOP’s floundering inquiry into an alleged Biden influence-peddling scheme.

Trumpworld officials also regularly convene at Cafe Milano, holding court and relishing the air of exclusivity that owner Franco Nuschese has spent decades fastidiously cultivating. The watering hole’s 30th anniversary party in 2022 featured appearances from the most powerful D.C. sophisticates, including Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), media titan Bob Woodward, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, and former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA).

But Cafe Milano isn’t the only restaurant Greenway Farms boasted as a client. On Instagram, the farm also name-dropped fellow swanky Georgetown restaurants Martin’s Tavern and Il Canale.

Both hot spots are also known for their star-studded list of patrons. According to D.C. lore, President John F. Kennedy proposed to Jackie O in a cozy back corner booth at Martin’s. Other chief executives — like Harry Truman, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton — also hit up the restaurant during their tenure in D.C. President Richard Nixon is said to have especially enjoyed the meatloaf.

Martin’s Tavern owner Billy Martin Jr. told The Daily Beast that to the best of his knowledge, the restaurant purchased Monte Carlo lettuce from Greenway Farms from October 2020 to June 2021, and received weekly deliveries. Greenway Farms is no longer a supplier to the restaurant.

“Martin’s Tavern has no knowledge of who Elshan Baloghlanov is,” a spokesperson told The Daily Beast. Adding that, “we were dealing with someone else who said they were the owner of Greenway Farms.”

Both Hillary Clinton and Ivanka Trump have stopped by Il Canale, another favorite Italian spot among Washington’s movers and shakers. The former selected white wine, pizza, and gnocchi.

Il Canale’s spokesperson Amy Riolo told The Daily Beast in an email that Il Canale purchased basil (to make pesto sauce) from Greenway Farms from 2020-2021, after someone representing the farms stopped by the restaurant to promote the produce. She said the restaurant did not have any direct contact with the owner and always communicated via text with “a lady.”

“No other interactions” occurred between the farm and restaurant, according to Riolo. The farm stopped delivering to Il Canale around March 2021, citing “too much demand.”

The Road to Azerbaijan

Baloghlanov’s daughter comments frequently on Greenway’s Instagram posts, which also tout its products’ availability at a range of stores, including Whole Foods, and farmers’ markets in and around the District.

The parcel of land in Gaithersburg belongs to two other Azerbaijan natives, one of whose property records and social media posts indicate is a Baloghlanov relative, who also serves as registered agent of the farm’s LLC. The signature of the other appears on paperwork WCC International has filed in Maryland.

Corporate records reveal yet more about Baloghlanov’s personal and business connections — and his political links in the dictatorial government of Azerbaijan.

For instance, documents filed in Maryland show that WCC International is simply a rechristened version of West Coast Connections, which Baloghlanov formed while still serving as Azerbaijani vice consul in Los Angeles. In 2014, ex-Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-MA) reported to the Justice Department that he had lobbied the State Department and then-Ambassador Richard Morningstar “for purpose of promoting positive bilateral relations between the U.S. and the Republic of Azerbaijan” on behalf of “representatives in Azerbaijan (through West Coast Connections Inc.).”

This demonstrates that Baloghlanov’s company has functioned as a cut-out for Azerbaijani interests for at least a decade.

What’s more, the firm’s business filings in California—which Baloghlanov resubmitted in Maryland—reveal that one of its directors is Gafar Gurbanov, a one-time Baku tax official known to manage the private assets of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s daughters. Gurbanov has in past transactions acted as a representative of the cash-flush Azerbaijani state oil company, which allegedly paid bribes to Cuellar’s wife.

This means that the man alleged to have bribed a U.S. congressman, and the company that prosecutors say handled some of the funds, is just a few degrees removed from the head of an authoritarian foreign power.

Foreign Assistance

But that’s not the only government Baloghlanov, or WCC International — or Greenway Farms — has ties to. The Daily Beast further learned that Baloghlanov and his company have drawn down just under $400,000 in funding from the United States Agency for International Development, via a nonprofit called Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture (CNFA).

CNFA, based on L Street a few blocks from the White House, told The Daily Beast it paid out these funds as part of two subcontracting arrangements with WCC that ran from March 2019 — two months after the company allegedly paid a $30,000 bribe to Cuellar’s wife — and September 2023. Its work involved helping CNFA in “establishing agribusiness linkages and public-private partnerships” and “providing training, helping organize an agricultural forum, and facilitating participation in various exhibitions and events for key project stakeholders.”

The nonprofit told The Daily Beast it selected WCC as a partner through a “competitive public tender,” and had reimbursed its labor and travel costs, among other expenses.

“CNFA has no control over what any payee does with its proceeds once paid,” spokeswoman Darshana Patel told The Daily Beast.

Since at least 2021, and through today, Greenway Farms has touted a relationship with CNFA on its website.

“We still teach farmers and food producers in the developing world about food safety and international trade in agriculture as part of our joint efforts with CNFA, a Washington D.C.-based international development organization promoting sustainable, climate-smart agricultural practices,” the “Our Story” page on Greenway’s site reads.

But Patel said CNFA has never had a direct relationship with the farm, and has strictly subcontracted with WCC International. This, combined with the domain and business records, indicates that Baloghlanov has for years run the farm and WCC—the alleged bribery vehicle and recipient of hundreds of thousands in foreign aid funds—as the same operation.

WCC also boasts of its USAID connections on a website it operates promoting agricultural ties between the U.S. and the greater Caspian Region (of which Azerbaijan forms a part), and Baloghlanov and the company participated in a USAID-sponsored event in Baku.

Baloghlanov has continued to engage with and promote USAID on his social media feeds — even reposting a new initiative the agency launched in late 2022.

The purpose of said initiative? “Countering transnational corruption.”

(Allison Quinn contributed reporting to this story.)

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: