Former USDA official testifies in federal corruption trial that Sen. Menendez warned him to ‘stop interfering’

A key witness in the federal corruption trial of Sen. Bob Menendez testified Friday that the New Jersey Democrat told him to “stop interfering” when he raised concerns about a newfound food industry monopoly by a constituent of the senator’s.

Ted McKinney, a former US Department of Agriculture official, said he learned in April 2019 that Egypt had de-listed seven halal certifiers in the US from approving meat exports and replaced them with a sole certifier, IS EG Halal. That company is owned by Wael Hana, Menendez’s constituent and alleged co-conspirator in the case.

Menendez and Hana, along with New Jersey businessman Fred Daibes and Menendez’s wife, Nadine, are accused of engaging in a bribery scheme and acting as foreign agents for the Egyptian government. All four have pleaded not guilty.

McKinney was a much-anticipated witness in the trial of Menendez, Hana and Daibes in federal court in New York, as prosecutors have pointed to his phone call with Menendez as evidence that the senator worked to keep the monopoly in place in exchange for bribes from Hana. The senator’s wife is set to go on trial in July.

McKinney testified that he was very concerned with the monopoly decision, as IS EG Halal had no experience in the industry and the transition, which would happen in only a week, would affect US competition and Egyptian consumers.

“We had never seen or heard anything like this in my history in the agriculture industry and in the foreign agricultural services,” McKinney testified.

On May 1, 2019, the date that had been set by Egypt to go live with the monopoly, McKinney said he called the Egyptian ambassador to the US to find a solution that would not disrupt the flow of exports entirely.

After not hearing back from the ambassador, McKinney elevated the urgency and emailed Mona Mehrez, an Egyptian deputy minister of agriculture, referring to the monopoly as a “draconian decision.”

He said he did not hear back from the Egyptian ambassador or Mehrez, but he did hear from one US senator in late May.

“I will never forget those words,” McKinney testified of his phone call with Menendez, saying the senator told him to “stop interfering with my constituent.” McKinney said he knew exactly whom Menendez was referring to: Hana’s IS EG Halal.

McKinney said he understood the message to be: “Let lie the fact that there was now one” certifier.

Former USDA official Ted McKinney is pictured on April 14, 2022. - Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc./Getty Images/File
Former USDA official Ted McKinney is pictured on April 14, 2022. - Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc./Getty Images/File

Menendez spoke in a “serious” and sometimes “curt” tone, McKinney testified, adding that he didn’t recall the senator saying “please” during the phone call. McKinney said that he tried to explain to Menendez why his team wanted to stop the monopoly and that Menendez interrupted him, with the conversation ending shortly afterward.

McKinney said he alerted three people on his staff to the call and prepared a follow-up email he would send Menendez to further explain his position.

The “sole reason,” McKinney said, that he never sent the email was because he learned of an FBI investigation into the senator. He put the word out within the USDA to stand down because “it was in the hands of the FBI at this point.”

Puzzlement and frustration over Hana’s arrangement with the Egyptian government did not begin at McKinney’s desk, as James Bret Tate, then a diplomat based in Cairo with a focus on US agricultural interests, testified earlier in the trial. Tate gave a detailed account of how he came to realize that Hana’s new company had obtained its monopoly.

The federal corruption trial concluded its third week Friday with cross-examination of McKinney, which will resume Monday.

CNN’s Gregory Krieg contributed to this report.

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at