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USDA takes heat as Democrats seek probe into trade aid

USDA takes heat as Democrats seek probe into trade aid
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The top watchdog at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) took heat Tuesday from Democrats who are demanding an internal probe into trade-related aid payments to the subsidiary of a Brazilian corporation under criminal investigation.

Democrats on a House Appropriations subcommittee urged USDA Inspector General (IG) Phyllis Fong to investigate whether the department should continue funding meatpacking company JBS USA with aid designed to support farmers hindered by President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden to nominate Linda Thomas-Greenfield for UN ambassador: reports Scranton dedicates 'Joe Biden Way' to honor president-elect Kasich: Republicans 'either in complete lockstep' or 'afraid' of Trump MORE’s trade battles.

Fong declined to say whether her office would probe JBS USA’s parent company while it is being investigated by the Department of Justice and Securities and Exchange Commission, but noted that she is required to coordinate with federal law enforcement.

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Fong’s answer did little to appease Democrats who have called on the USDA to take its own action after they were rebuffed by Agriculture Secretary Sonny PerdueGeorge (Sonny) Ervin PerdueOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Barrasso to seek top spot on Energy and Natural Resources Committee | Forest Service finalizes rule weakening environmental review of its projects | Biden to enlist Agriculture, Transportation agencies in climate fight Forest Service finalizes rule weakening environmental review of its projects Federal judge strikes down Trump's cuts on food stamps for unemployed MORE, who declined in January to investigate the company during the DOJ probe.

“I’m making an assumption that the Secretary condones the use of taxpayer dollars. In order to subsidize a corrupt foreign-owned corporation and engaged in illegal activity,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauroRosa Luisa DeLauroOVERNIGHT ENERGY: House Democrats push Biden to pick Haaland as next Interior secretary | Trump administration proposal takes aim at bank pledges to avoid fossil fuel financing | Wasserman Schultz pitches climate plan in race to chair Appropriations Wasserman Schultz pitches climate plan in race to chair Appropriations DeLauro racks up labor endorsements for Appropriations gavel MORE (D-Conn.), who asked USDA in a November letter to investigate and halt payments to JBS.

“You are independent. That's what makes the IG so critically important to all of us here.”

In a Jan. 31 response to DeLauro made public Tuesday, Perdue said the USDA “will not take any action” that could interfere with the DOJ and SEC investigations “unless requested” by those agencies.

Rep. Mark PocanMark William PocanCapitol's COVID-19 spike could be bad Thanksgiving preview Katherine Clark secures No. 4 leadership spot for House Democrats Democrats to determine leaders after disappointing election MORE (D-Wis.) bemoaned the fact that JBS USA received more aid than all of Wisconsin’s dairy farmers as his state reels from a string of farm bankruptcies.

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“I think they deserve some bigger answers,” Pocan said. “If we could do that in the Inspector General report I know it would be appreciated.”

JBS USA, the second-largest U.S. meat processing company, has received roughly $67 million in USDA grants intended to go to pork farmers who lost sales to China and Europe due to response to Trump’s tariffs. But the payments to JBS USA have provoked bipartisan backlash over the company’s foreign ownership and connections to a Brazilian bribery scandal.

JBS USA is the American subsidiary of JBS S.A., a Brazilian meat conglomerate owned by brothers Joesely and Wesely Batista. The Batistas admitted to spending roughly $150 million to bribe more than 1,800 Brazilian government officials to secure $1.3 billion in loans from the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) and federal pension funds. 

The DOJ and SEC are investigating whether JBS S.A. violated federal anti-corruption laws and financial disclosure laws by using illegally obtained domestic grants to expand into the U.S. meat industry.

Sens. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezDemocratic senators urge Facebook to take action on anti-Muslim bigotry Trump appointee sparks bipartisan furor for politicizing media agency Senate Democrats hold talkathon to protest Barrett's Supreme Court nomination MORE (D-N.J.) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioDemocrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks GOP senator congratulates Biden, says Trump should accept results GOP lawmaker patience runs thin with Trump tactics MORE (R-Fla.) also asked Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinOn The Money: Democrats accuse Mnuchin of sabotaging economy in dispute with Fed | Trump administration proposal takes aim at bank pledges to avoid fossil fuel financing | JPMorgan: Economy will shrink in first quarter due to COVID-19 spike Democrats accuse Mnuchin of sabotaging economy in dispute with Fed The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Pence, Biden wage tug of war over pandemic plans MORE to conduct an investigation into JBS through the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., a secretive Treasury panel with expansive power over foreign business operations in the U.S.

JBS USA spokesman Cameron Bruett said in a statement at the time that the company "has fully cooperated with all relevant authorities in a transparent manner regarding past events in Brazil."

"The company will continue to cooperate and respond to any subsequent inquiries," Bruett said.