US investigates lawmaker tied to halal certification company, says report
US Senator Bob Menendez, who avoided conviction on corruption charges five years ago, is currently facing a federal probe tied with a New Jersey-based company that certifies halal meats exported for sale to Egypt, according to a report by The New York Times.
The New York Times reported late last week that FBI agents have been working with US prosecutors in the Southern District of New York in a probe looking into the business dealings of IS EG Halal, a New Jersey start-up that had no known experience in halal certification, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
According to two people familiar with the investigation, the search is now being linked to the ongoing probe of Menendez, chair of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, although the nature of the investigation is unclear.
Menendez said after an event in New Jersey on Friday that he was aware that federal prosecutors were conducting an investigation and that he stands ready to help "when and if they ask".
"Don't know the scope or the subjects," Menendez said.
The investigation into IS EG Halal stems from a move made in April 2019, when the government of Egypt made changes to its import licences and moved to have all halal meat certifications done by IS EG Halal instead of at least four companies that were doing this job prior.
The USDA noted that the move could have a negative impact on the market and increase prices.
Middle East Eye reached out to IS EG Halal, the embassy of Egypt, and an adviser to Menendez for comment on this report.
In November 2019, FBI agents searched the offices of the company as well as the home of its president, Wael Hana, seizing computers, cellphones and even Hana's passport, according to a 2020 court filing by the president's lawyer, seeking a return of the property.
Court documents filed after the FBI search refer to statutes that relate to failing to register as an agent of a foreign government, among others.
Hana's lawyer, Lawrence Lustberg, said in court filings that IS EG Halal "was awarded the halal certification contract that it has with Egypt, and which it is performing flawlessly, without any assistance whatsoever from any US public official" and that Hana was not a target of the government's investigation.
In order for a product to be certified as halal, it must meet strict processing and preparation standards and cannot include ingredients that are prohibited by Islamic law, including pork or alcohol.
In court papers seen by The New York Times, Hana acknowledged he had no expertise in halal certification when he began operating the business in 2019.
He said that the Egyptian government had given him resources to ensure that exported products complied with Islamic law.
"As I am a Christian, I am not experienced in halal certification, so the Egyptian government has provided imams and trained veterinarians to assist me," Hana said.
Cairo imports roughly 300,000 tonnes of halal beef from retailers worldwide, according to US government reports, and is the only US trading partner that requires all its imported halal meat to be certified by a single company.
After Egypt disqualified the four previously designated companies, the price paid by retailers to get certified halal beef was expected to increase to about $200 a metric ton, up from about $20, according to a USDA report.
Prior corruption charges
An adviser for Menendez confirmed last Wednesday that the New Jersey senator is facing another federal investigation, a Menendez adviser confirmed Wednesday.
The new investigation, first reported by the digital news organisation Semafor, comes five years after a trial on federal corruption charges levied against the lawmaker ended in a mistrial.
In the previous case, prosecutors accused Menendez of carrying out political favours for Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen in exchange for private jet trips, luxury vacations and campaign contributions.
Menendez, 68, argued that the two men were friends and that there was no quid pro quo.
The senator was tried on bribery charges in 2017 but the case was declared a mistrial after a jury could not reach a verdict.
Melgen was convicted in 2017 of defrauding Medicare out of $73m and sentenced to 17 years in prison. His sentence, however, was commuted by former President Donald Trump.