The owner of a scandal-scarred Brazilian meatpacker pleaded guilty to corruption crimes in Brooklyn Federal Court on Wednesday — just weeks after the company’s American subsidiary scooped up its latest taxpayer-funded bailout from the Trump administration.
J&F Investimentos, the controlling shareholder of the sprawling JBS meatpacking empire, had one of its attorneys admit in a video conference that it dished out nearly $150 million in bribes to top Brazilian officials between 2005 and 2017 in exchange for getting state-backed financing to expand its meat business into the U.S.
As part of the plea, J&F — which is controlled by Brazil’s infamous Batista family — agreed to cough up $256 million in fines, capping a lengthy investigation by the Justice Department and adding to the record-breaking $3.2 billion fine that the company had to pay in 2017 to settle a similar probe in its home country.
Despite JBS' long history of questionable business practices, the Trump administration’s Agriculture Department showered the meatpacker’s main American subsidiary, JBS USA, with more than $100 million in taxpayer-funded product bailouts between January 2019 and February 2020, as previously reported by the Daily News.
But what’s not previously known is that the Agriculture Department kept forking over bailouts to JBS USA even as the J&F plea deal neared, according to federal records obtained by The News this week.
Less than six weeks ago, on Sept. 4, the Colorado-based JBS USA secured its most recent Agriculture Department bailout — $1 million for more than 700,000 pounds of surplus pork products, the records show.
The September contract was the 12th bailout that JBS USA received from the Agriculture Department this year alone, according to the records.
Combined, the 12 contracts funneled $40.3 million in taxpayer cash into JBS USA’s coffers, meaning the Brazilian-owned company has raked in at least $140.3 million in Trump administration bailouts since last year.
Four of this year’s bailouts were explicitly marked as “trade mitigation program” purchases in the records. President Trump launched the trade mitigation program in 2018 as an effort meant to help American farmers struggling to make ends meet because of his tariff-heavy trade war with China.
Spokespeople for the Agriculture Department did not return requests for comment Wednesday and it’s unclear if the bailouts will stop in light of the J&F guilty plea.
Agriculture Department officials have previously defended the bailout practices, saying that the taxpayer cash trickles down to local American farmers who are subcontracted by JBS USA.
However, congressional Democrats and Republicans have long questioned why the payments have to be filtered through JBS USA instead of going straight to farmers, especially considering the Brazilian meatpacker’s checkered past and history of misappropriating government funds.
J&F remains under the control of Wesley and Joesley Batista, a couple of Brazilian brothers who have admitted to personally bribing hundreds of government officials in their home country.
The company’s spokesman Cameron Bruett sought to distance his company from J&F in light of the guilty plea.
“JBS USA has not been accused of any wrongdoing. JBS USA is not party to the agreement between J&F Investimentos and the Department of Justice, nor responsible for any liabilities arising from the agreement,” Bruett said in an email.
Bruett declined to say if JBS USA will continue to seek Agriculture Department bailouts in light of the J&F guilty plea.
Despite Bruett’s comments, the Justice Department said in a statement that J&F orchestrated the bribe scheme to secure benefits for “the company and its affiliates,” among which is JBS USA.
The Justice Department also said the plea deal requires J&F to cooperate “in any ongoing or future criminal investigations concerning J&F, its executives, employees, or agents," suggesting more charges could be forthcoming.
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