At bribery trial, ex-US official casts Sen. Bob Menendez as a villain in Egyptian meat controversy

May 31, 2024, 3:48 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — A former top U.S. agricultural official cast Sen. Bob Menendez as a villain at his bribery trial Friday, saying he tried to stop him from disrupting an unusual sudden monopoly that developed five years ago over the certification of meat exported to Egypt.

A Manhattan federal court jury heard the official, Ted McKinney, recount a brief phone call he received from the Democrat in 2019 soon after New Jersey businessman Wael Hana was granted the sole right to certify that meat exported to Egypt from the United States conformed to Islamic dietary requirements.

Hana, who is on trial with Menendez and one other businessman, is among three New Jersey businessmen who prosecutors say gave Menendez and his wife bribes including gold bars and tens of thousands of dollars in cash from 2018 to 2022 in return for actions from Menendez that would enhance their business interests.

Menendez, 70, and his codefendants, along with his wife — who is scheduled for a July trial — have pleaded not guilty to charges lodged against them beginning last fall.

The monopoly that Hana’s company received forced out several other companies that had been certifying beef and liver exported to Egypt and occurred over a span of several days in May 2019, a rapid transition that seemed “very, very unusual,” McKinney said.

“We immediately swung into action,” the former official said, describing a series of escalating actions that the U.S. took to try to get Egyptian officials to reconsider the action that awarded a monopoly to a single company that had never carried out the certifications before. The overtures, he said, were met with silence.

Amid the urgent effort, McKinney called Egypt’s choice a “rather draconian decision” that would drive up prices in one correspondence with Egyptian authorities.

He said Menendez called him in late May 2019 and told him to “quit interfering with my constituent.”

In so many words, he added, Menendez was telling him to “stand down.”

McKinney said he started to explain to the senator why the United States preferred multiple companies rather than one certifying meat sent to Egypt, but Menendez cut him off.

“Let’s not bother with that. That’s not important. Let’s not go there,” McKinney recalled Menendez telling him as he tried to explain that a monopoly would cause high prices and endanger the 60 percent share of the market for beef and liver that the U.S. held in Egypt.

He described the senator’s tone on the call as “serious to maybe even very serious.”

McKinney said he knew Menendez held a powerful post at the time as the top Democrat on the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, but he told diplomats in Egypt and within his department to continue gathering facts on why Egypt abruptly changed its policies.

He said he told them to “keep doing what they were doing and if there was any heat to take, I would take it.”

“We thought something nefarious was going on,” he said.

McKinney said he was preparing to contact the senator a second time to discuss his concerns when he learned that the FBI was investigating how the certification of meat to Egypt ended up in a single company’s hands.

He said he alerted others in his department and diplomats overseas to stand down.

“It’s in the hands of the FBI now,” McKinney said he told them.

What was likely to be a lengthy cross-examination of McKinney began late Friday with a lawyer for Menendez eliciting that it was Egypt’s right to choose what company or companies handled the certification of meat exported from the United States to Egypt. The lawyer highlighted that Egypt concluded the companies that had been handling certifications had not been doing it properly.

As Menendez left the courthouse Friday, he told reporters to pay close attention to the cross-examination.

“You know, you wait for the cross and you’ll find the truth,” he said before stepping into a car and riding away.

National News

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At bribery trial, ex-US official casts Sen. Bob Menendez as a villain in Egyptian meat controversy