Ahead of runoff, report says South Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar fired, tried to discredit pregnant staffer

The report comes as Cuellar's runoff opponent, Jessica Cisneros, makes his anti-abortion stance a key part of her campaign.

click to enlarge U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar speaks in 2020 at a downtown San Antonio press briefing. - SANFORD NOWLIN
Sanford Nowlin
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar speaks in 2020 at a downtown San Antonio press briefing.
South Texas' U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, one of Congress' most anti-abortion Democrats, urged staff members to help him discredit a senior aide he fired in 2018 while she was pregnant, Jezebel reports, citing court documents.

The story breaks as Cuellar, who earlier this year voted against a Democrat-backed bill that would codify abortion rights, faces a May 24 primary runoff against progressive Jessica Cisneros. Cisneros, a 28-year-old immigration lawyer, has made abortion rights a key focus of her campaign against the nine-term incumbent — a message that's been amplified as it appears the U.S. Supreme Court is prepared to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Cuellar's office provided no immediate comment to the Current on the Jezebel story. The congressman's district stretches from his hometown of Laredo to San Antonio.

According to Jezebel's report, former Cuellar staffer Kristie Small emailed the congressman to ask about parental leave shortly after her hiring. In his reply, Cuellar mentioned a 90-day probation policy for new staffers that she argued didn't appear in the office's employee handbook.

Cuellar never approved Small's parental leave request, and he fired her on Oct. 16, 2018, citing poor job performance, Jezebel reports. She was 28 weeks pregnant when she lost her job.

After the termination, Small — whose pregnancy ended in miscarriage — sued for both sex and pregnancy discrimination. She also filed a complaint with a special congressional office, according to the Associated Press.

“Plaintiff asked several of her colleagues about probation. None of them had been on a probationary period or knew anything about it," Small's lawsuit stated. "As far as she knows, plaintiff was the only pregnant female employee, and she was the only employee subject to a probationary period."

As Cuellar defended his office against the suit, he submitted letters from Small's colleagues citing problems with her performance, according to the story. However, Jezebel reports that its investigation reveals the congressman requested staffers to write the letters after the firing. At least five were dated from after the filing of the suit, according to the news site.

Federal Judge Trevor N. McFadden denied Cuellar's request to dismiss the case, mentioning that the congressman solicited written statements about the former aide's performance after the suit was filed. “Perhaps Cuellar was simply looking for corroboration of Small’s poor performance, but a jury might also see this as an attempt to collect post hoc justifications,” the judge wrote.

Small and Cuellar settled the suit in 2021. Details of their agreement are unavailable.

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