by Isabel Vincent
Source: The New York Post
The world’s largest meat-processing giant was forced to shut down some of its US plants as more than 100 of its workers tested positive for COVID-19 last week, but the pandemic may be the least of its problems.
The Brazilian billionaire brothers — one of whom owned a Manhattan penthouse — controlling the massive meat producer JBS, which slaughters 13 million animals a day and has revenues of $50 billion a year, have been linked to high-level government corruption that has rocked the South American country.
The Batistas’ company is also being probed in America now for bribery, and has been accused of price-gouging during the COVID-19 crisis. The New York attorney general, meanwhile, has been asked to look at the company as “an imminent threat” before it goes public on Wall Street.
The brothers live lavishly.
Joesley Batista, 48 — who, along with his 47-year-old brother, Wesley, spent six months in jail in Brazil charged with insider trading — sold a sprawling, 7,000-square-foot apartment in Midtown’s Baccarat Hotel in 2018. The posh pad across the street from the Museum of Modern Art was valued at more than $11 million — funds that were earmarked toward paying off the brothers’ fines and legal costs, according to Brazilian press reports.
Joesley, the more flamboyant of the two brothers, bought a Lamborghini, a yacht and married Ticiana Villas Boas, the glamorous TV co-host of “Bake Off Brasil.” She once bragged to Brazilian magazine Veja that the family was so rich, she didn’t know the price of groceries or other household items. After pressure from JBS in Brazil, the article was removed from the magazine’s website, according to Brazilian press reports.
After admitting to bribing nearly 2,000 elected officials in Brazil in order to secure government funding to fuel their company’s US expansion a few years ago, Joesley and Wesley Batista were slapped with more than $3.2 billion in fines in 2017, the highest in the country’s history.
Now JBS’ parent company, J&F Investimentos, is reportedly the subject of US Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission investigations for alleged bribery here. Last year, Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ) urged the federal government to investigate the beef conglomerate and its alleged dealings with the Venezuelan government after the company developed business ties with the administration of President Nicolas Maduro. The US has levied sanctions against the Venezuelan leader.
Last week, US legislators, including Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), renewed calls for the federal government to investigate alleged price-fixing by JBS and other big beef producers during the pandemic. According to Grassley, big meat processors are using the pandemic to “gouge” US cattle producers.
And a Brazilian jurist working to recoup billions of dollars in public funds the Batista brothers obtained through “illicit” means recently petitioned New York’s attorney general to begin an investigation as the company floats plans to go public on the New York Stock Exchange.
“We write to bring to the attention … these troubling issues because they potentially pose an imminent threat to New York residents, investors and financial institutions,” said a Dec. 20, 2019, letter to New York Attorney General Letitia James, viewed by The Post.
“This proposed transaction is effectively an attempt by the Batistas to raise funds to pay their multibillion-dollar fines and to legitimize themselves and their companies through a US-sanctioned IPO,” said lawyers for Mauricio Mota, a Brazilian law professor.
A spokesman for the AG did not return Post messages. A spokeswoman for JBS USA said “we have not been informed of any such request” for an investigation.
The company “has not been accused of any wrongdoing,” said Nikki Richardson. “JBS has fully cooperated with all the relevant authorities in the United States regarding events that took place in Brazil nearly three years ago. All investigations to date have focused on events in Brazil, and the company will continue to cooperate and respond to any subsequent inquiries.”
Last week, JBS, which sells beef and chicken under its Pilgrim’s Pride and Swift labels, said it was closing a packing plant in Greeley, Colorado, where four workers died from the coronavirus, including longtime plant employee Saul Sanchez, 78. Sanchez, a father of six, had worked for more than 30 years at the plant. A daughter, Beatriz Rangel, said Sanchez was willing to work at the plant even during the outbreak because he trusted his employer.
“When I called to let them know that he was sick, and to let the rest of the employees know he was positive, I got no response,” Rangel told reporters after his burial Wednesday.
A JBS plant in Souderton, Pennsylvania, closed last month after workers came down with flu-like symptoms, but is scheduled to reopen Monday, the company said.