Sen. Menendez bribery trial reveals N.J. businessman’s sweetheart halal meat deal with Egypt

NEW YORK — The price of halal meat in Egypt took center stage at the trial of Sen. Bob Menendez Monday, as defense lawyers tried to chip away at prosecutors’ allegations that the veteran lawmaker helped broker a sweetheart monopoly for a U.S. businessman in exchange for bribes.

The 70-year-old Democrat’s trial entered its second week in Manhattan Federal Court Monday, after jurors last week saw multiple photographs of the cash and gold bars the FBI found in Menendez’s New Jersey home.

Menendez’s defense team is laying the blame for the suspicious gifts on his wife, Nadine, who they say was acting without the senator’s knowledge when she got gold and other goodies from N.J. businessmen she counted as longtime friends. Two of those businessmen, Wael “Will” Hana and Fred Daibes, are also on trial.

On Monday, jurors again heard from James Bret Tate, a U.S. diplomat based in Cairo for several years. Tate testified that he became concerned in 2019 when Hana’s company, IS EG Hala, was picked as the only company Egypt would allow to certify meat exported from the U.S. Previously, the process was handled by four other U.S. companies.

“We knew that the price had increased because the companies had to pay more money, but we didn’t know by how much,” he said.

He became concerned enough to write a report and to request a financial audit, but got word from Washington “to not make any more noise about this issue, to let the dust settle.”

Hana’s lawyer, Lawrence Lustberg, pointed out that the decision to choose only Hana’s company came from Egypt alone.

“My concern was that IS EG had in some way influenced Egyptian officials to give them the contract,” Tate said.

Lustberg also pushed back on Tate’s contention that the exports were disrupted by the change-over, saying, “As it turned out, you are aware, IS EG worked with the slaughterhouses in the U.S. and got pretty quickly up to speed.”

Prosecutors contend that Hana, who has connections to the Egyptian government, got the business after bribing Menendez to leak nonpublic information about the U.S. embassy, to secretly ghostwrite a letter addressing concerns about human rights abuses and to help approve the sale of almost $100 million of tank ammunition to Egypt.

The trial continues on Tuesday.