NY Daily News: Agriculture Secretary Perdue denies meeting Brazilian crook at center of Trump bailout scandal — a press release says otherwise

Sonny Perdue, now President Trump’s Agriculture Secretary, met with Brazilian meatpacking mogul Wesley Batista in 2010, according to a press release from his own office. (AP)

by Chris Sommerfeldt | June 12, 2019

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue tried to rewrite history Wednesday by denying he ever met with a corrupt Brazilian businessman whose massive meatpacking firm is being grilled for collecting millions in U.S. taxpayer-funded farm bailouts.

In a brief statement to the Daily News, a spokesman for Perdue contradicted a press release put out when the agriculture secretary served as Georgia governor about a powwow he had with Wesley Batista — who, with his brother, Joesley, controls the world’s largest meatpacker, Brazil’s JBS SA.

“Secretary Perdue has not met with Wesley or Joesley Batista,” the spokesman said when asked pointedly if Perdue has ever met either of the Batistas, who have confessed to bribing some 1,800 government officials in Brazil.

But the May 26, 2010, release from then-Gov. Perdue’s office states that he met with Wesley Batista for the opening of a JBS-owned chicken plant in Douglas, Ga.

Also in attendance for the plant opening were another Batista brother, Jose Batista Jr., and family patriarch Jose Batista Sobrinho, the founder of JBS SA, according to Perdue’s press release.

Cameron Bruett, a spokesman for JBS, contradicted the Perdue spokesman’s denial as well and said the secretary’s “presence” at the plant opening demonstrated “his longstanding commitment to job creation, growth and opportunity in rural America.”

After The News reported on the contradiction, an Agriculture Department representative backpedaled a bit and said Perdue has not met with either of the Batistas “in his capacity” as secretary.

The 2010 ribbon cutting Perdue attended was for a chicken plant operated by Pilgrim’s Pride, a subsidiary owned and controlled by JBS SA.

Another such subsidiary is JBS USA, which has received at least four bailout contracts from the Agriculture Department for pork products worth more than $64 million, as first reported by The News last month.

The bailouts have prompted outrage from congressional Democrats and industry watchdogs, as the cash came from a federal program — established by President Trump — that was supposed to help American farmers having a hard time selling products because of the administration’s tariff-heavy trade wars with China and other countries.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is leading a group of nine Democratic senators in demanding that Perdue stop handing over taxpayer cash to foreign corporations like JBS, said the 2010 meeting is yet another red flag.

“These kinds of instances are why Sen. Schumer has urged for action,” spokesman Angelo Roefaro said.

Perdue argues that even though the bailouts are issued to a foreign-owned corporation with a checkered past, the money ends up trickling down to American farmers that JBS partners with.

The secretary has also maintained JBS qualifies under its criteria mandating that vendors only provide and purchase U.S. products, suggesting in a statement last month that it doesn’t matter if “their executives may have been guilty of some issue along the way.”

In addition to transgressions in Brazil, JBS remains under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department for potential violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, according to court records. Pilgrim’s Pride, the JBS subsidiary, was also hit last month with an anti-trust lawsuit from Walmart, alleging it has participated in a sweeping price fixing scheme with other meat producers.

Agriculture Department officials have consistently declined to say whether the Batistas’ corrupt practices were considered before the JBS contracts were awarded. The department also hasn’t said why the bailout cash can’t go directly to American farmers instead of using JBS as a middleman.

The Batistas were not in legal jeopardy at the time of the 2010 meeting with Perdue.

However, their sketchy activities had been widely reported and they had even spent time in jail when Perdue in May 2018 appointed two JBS executives to the Agriculture Department’s National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection.

The executives, Tina Rendon of Pilgrim’s Pride and Sherri Jenkins of JBS USA, were each appointed to two-year terms on the board, which advises the Agriculture Department on food safety and other matters affecting federal and state inspection programs.

The appointments were made by Perdue despite Pilgrim’s Pride and other JBS subsidiaries having been cited by the Agriculture Department for a string of food safety violations, including mass recalls of products suspected of being contaminated with “rubber.”

Tony Corbo, a lobbyist at industry watchdog group Food & Water Watch, said he sees the appointments as part of Perdue’s attempt to privatize food inspection programs.

“The jobs of the inspectors are turned over to company employees to perform and the companies are permitted to increase their line speeds,” Corbo said. “We have criticized these efforts by USDA as have worker safety and animal welfare advocates.”

JBS has yet another connection to Perdue.

The meatpacking company’s namesake U.S. super PAC has since 2014 donated $7,000 to Perdue’s cousin, Republican Georgia Sen. David Perdue.

Sen. Perdue is among a group of mostly Republican lawmakers who have taken political cash from JBS over the years, as first reported by The News.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Perdue did not return a request for comment Wednesday.

Democrats have ramped up pressure on the administration over the JBS bailouts, with some demanding they be reversed. Republicans, meanwhile, have remained silent.