Witness At Sen. Bob Menendez's Bribery Trial Says Meat-Export Monopoly Made Costs Soar

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., leaves federal court Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., leaves federal court Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

NEW YORK (AP) — A witness at Sen. Bob Menendez's bribery trial testified Friday that the cost of certifying that meat sent to Egypt followed Islamic dietary requirements skyrocketed after a single U.S. company was given a monopoly in a cozy deal prosecutors say the Democrat arranged in return for bribes.

James Bret Tate, a U.S. diplomat who was based in Cairo for several years and promoted U.S. agricultural interests, told a Manhattan federal court jury how Halal meat certification ended up in the hands of a single company run by Menendez's codefendant, Wael “Will” Hana, rather than several companies that had done it in the past.

Prosecutors say Menendez, 70, of Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, was behind the creation of the monopoly as a partial payback for bribes he received from Hana, a friend of Menendez's wife. Among charges lodged against Menendez were bribery, extortion, fraud and obstruction of justice and acting as a foreign agent of Egypt. He and Hana have pleaded not guilty to all charges, along with a third businessman and codefendant, real estate developer Fred Daibes.

Tate said the cost of certifying a container the size of an 18-wheel truck carrying 23 tons of meat rose dramatically from between $200 and $400 a container to more than $5,000 for the same service after Hana's company gained its monopoly.

“The fee increased drastically,” Tate testified, saying he was trying to expand the number of companies that could export meat to Egypt in 2019 from the four that were already doing so when he was abruptly informed that Egypt wanted a single company to handle it and had specified that it be Hana's company.

Tate said he was surprised because Hana had no experience in the field and seemed so clueless that he had asked him at a meeting how certification worked.

Tate was the second witness to testify at a trial that began Monday with jury selection that stretched into three days. The senator's wife, Nadine Menendez, was also arrested when charges were unveiled last fall, but her trial hast been delayed after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, her husband revealed Thursday. She has pleaded not guilty.

Prosecutors said they will prove during a trial projected to last up to two months that Menendez and his wife accepted gold and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash to help three New Jersey businessmen in various ways.

In an opening statement Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Pomerantz said the Egyptian government had “dropped a lucrative monopoly into Hana's lap.”

“Hana didn’t actually have any experience in this business. Zero. But you’ll learn that what he did have were connections in the Egyptian government and a U.S. senator in his pocket promising military aid,” she said.

On Thursday, Hana's attorney, Lawrence Lustberg, said in an opening statement that his client did nothing wrong in building his business.

“The decision was Egypt’s, it was not an American decision,” he said. And he said nothing had been asked of Menendez related to the business since Hana had relations with Egyptian officials.

“No crime at all,” Lustberg said. “We are a country of immigrants, among them the tight-knit Egyptian community of which Will Hana is a part.”

Lustberg said Hana's company in March 2021 signed a five-year contract to certify all U.S. meats sent to Egypt after Egypt concluded that U.S. companies which had been doing it were doing a poor job.

“Mr. Hana continues to keep these halal contracts, not because of connections with Mr. Menendez, but based on the merits,” the lawyer said.

At the time of the events at stake in the trial, Menendez held the powerful post of chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a position he was forced to relinquish after his arrest.