Brazilian firm draws scrutiny on Trump farm aid

The Trump administration is under fire for granting millions in trade-related farm aid to a company owned by two Brazilian brothers under investigation for violating U.S. anti-corruption laws.

JBS USA, an American subsidiary of an international meatpacking corporation, has reportedly received millions from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) aid program for farmers and ranchers caught up in President TrumpDonald John TrumpHarris bashes Kavanaugh's 'sham' nomination process, calls for his impeachment after sexual misconduct allegation Celebrating 'Hispanic Heritage Month' in the Age of Trump Let's not play Charlie Brown to Iran's Lucy MORE’s trade war.

Trump has sought to protect the ailing U.S. farm sector from tariffs on the country’s agricultural exports through direct payments and crop purchases from the USDA.

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He announced Thursday that the USDA would offer $16 billion more in aid to U.S. farmers and ranchers, following $12 billion in assistance unveiled in July.

“The $16 billion in funds will help keep our cherished farms thriving and make clear that no country has a veto on America’s economic and national security,” Trump said Thursday. “We will ensure that our farmers get the relief they need and very, very quickly.”

U.S. farmers and ranchers are among the hardest hit by the trade-war blowback from China and the European Union. Trump's tariffs on steel, aluminum and Chinese goods prompted retaliatory levies on U.S. crops and livestock, hurting producers already reeling from low commodity prices and severe weather.

But Democratic lawmakers are pressuring the Trump administration to retract its payouts to JBS USA, citing its link to a foreign corporation run by brothers at the center of corruption and bribery probes in both the U.S. and Brazil.

“Allowing taxpayer funds to support foreign agricultural companies, particularly corrupt foreign companies, at a time when farmers in Wisconsin and across the country are suffering from pain caused by your trade wars is outrageous,” wrote Sen. Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinFederal funding for Chinese buses risks our national security Democrats threaten to withhold defense votes over wall The Trump downturn: Trouble ahead for the US economy MORE (D-Wis.) in a Thursday letter to Trump.

“I’m calling on you to explain how you allowed this to happen.”

JBS USA operates dozens of beef, pork, and poultry packaging plants throughout the U.S. and is among several firms facing retaliatory tariffs on American agricultural products. The company has received $64 million in aid through four contracts with the USDA, according to the New York Daily News.

JBS USA’s parent company is based in Brazil, so the U.S. firm is technically eligible for USDA aid because it sources livestock from American farmers.

“Our sole intent for participating is to support U.S. producer prices and help our American producer partners,” JBS USA told The Hill in a statement, adding that it employs 62,000 workers across 28 states and Puerto Rico.

“We operate U.S. pork plants, processing American hogs raised by U.S. farmers – the true program beneficiaries.”

JBS USA was formed in 2007 when Brazilian corporation JBS SA purchased Swift & Co, a major U.S. meatpacker. Through a string of other high-profile acquisitions, JBS USA has grown to become the second-largest producer of beef, pork and poultry in the country.

As JBS USA reaped profits from its growing American operations, the Brazilian brothers who owned the parent company—Josely and Wesley Batista—faced severe legal trouble at home and in the U.S.

The Batistas have admitted to bribing thousands of Brazilian officials and are facing accusations of insider trading and lying to prosecutors. The Justice Department is also investigating the Batistas for violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, according to court records obtained by The Hill.

“It is simply unconscionable that corrupt foreign-owned companies like JBS currently qualify for assistance under the USDA’s vendor criteria,” wrote Sen. Richard Blumenthal in a Monday letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny PerdueGeorge (Sonny) Ervin Perdue5 Republicans who could replace Isakson in Georgia's Senate race The Hill's Morning Report - Gillibrand drops out as number of debaters shrinks Democrats see golden opportunity to take Georgia Senate seat MORE.

Sen. Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowConservatives offer stark warning to Trump, GOP on background checks USDA cuts payments promised to researchers as agency uproots to Kansas City USDA eases relocation timeline as researchers flee agency MORE (D-Mich.), ranking member on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said in a statement that the payouts to JBS were “alarming,” particularly because Brazilian soybean growers have profited from a sharp decline in orders from the U.S.

“This adds insult to injury,” Stabenow said. “We need a focused trade strategy to protect our farmers, businesses, and consumers.”

JBS USA isn't the first company to come under scrutiny for receiving trade-related aid.

GOP senators successfully shamed Chinese-owned Smithfield into returning roughly $240,000 in aid to USDA last year. But Republicans and the Trump administration have shown little of the same concerns about JBS.

Perdue brushed off concerns about JBS’ ownership, insisting that USDA aid would not benefit the Batistas.

“These are legal companies operating in the United States. This is no different than people buying Volkswagens or other foreign autos where their executives may have been guilty of some issue along the way,” Perdue said in a Friday statement.

“This helps US Farmers by supporting prices.”

But Democrats say they intend to keep the spotlight on JBS USA and on broader issues with the USDA's aid program.

Earlier this month, Rep. Rosa DeLauroRosa Luisa DeLauroOvernight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — FDA says Juul illegally marketed e-cigarettes | AMA warns against vaping after deaths | Two Planned Parenthood clinics to close in Ohio Overnight Health Care: Watchdog details severe trauma suffered by separated children | Judge approves B CVS-Aetna merger | House Dem Caucus chair backs 'Medicare for All' On The Money: Stocks decline as Trump digs in on trade war | New tariffs on Chinese goods take effect | Deutsche Bank throws curveball in Trump tax return fight MORE (D-Conn.) introduced a bill to limit USDA payouts to U.S.-owned firms and told the Daily News the Trump administration needed more oversight.

"Their incompetence and lack of transparency has shown that they cannot be trusted to get this right,” she told the paper.