A Brazilian meat conglomerate stewing in corruption, child labor, and pandemic-related scandals will continue to get federal contracts, Biden Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack revealed in a letter penned late last year.
Now, The Daily Beast can reveal that just months before Vilsack announced that the Biden administration would continue basting the company in taxpayer dollars, the firm carved out a lucrative new job on its leadership team and forked it over to the secretary’s former chief of staff.
Vilsack sent the November missive, first reported in January by Politico, in response to an inquiry then-Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) made all the way back in June. Of particular concern to the congresswoman was that JBS and its affiliate Pilgrim’s Pride had received $60 million in government contracts despite the company’s founders and top shareholders coughing up $282.5 million in 2020 to settle cases brought by the Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission.
The U.S. authorities determined that the Brazilian billionaire brothers behind JBS had acquired Pilgrim’s Pride thanks to $2 billion in loans from their home country’s national development bank, which they obtained by bribing Brazilian officials.
Maloney noted that Federal Acquisition Regulation, which governs Washington contracting, requires vendors “conduct themselves with the highest degree of integrity and honesty” and be “responsible.” In his response, Vilsack acknowledged the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had considered suspending or debarring JBS from future contracts—but decided against it for fear of disruptive price spikes, given that the firm is the largest protein producer on the planet.
“USDA also remains attentive to the high degree of fragility in the market, including the circumstances surrounding food price inflation,” Vilsack wrote. “Removing a firm from government-wide procurement would potentially impair competitive choice for the taxpayer in securing affordable food for the range of needs that government must provide for, from school lunches to meals for our soldiers.”
Vilsack’s letter did not mention that, just weeks earlier, the Department of Labor found a 13-year-old working for a cleaning contractor had suffered a severe chemical burn while working on the killing floor of JBS’s plant in Grand Island, Nebraska.
Nor did the secretary note that just 11 days prior to Maloney sending her letter, JBS had created a brand new executive job—senior vice president of public policy and government affairs—and given it to Karla Thieman, who initially served as senior policy adviser to Vilsack before becoming his chief of staff when he led the USDA during the Obama administration.
“In this newly created role, she will have oversight of U.S. public policy and government relations strategies for JBS USA and Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation,” the firm said in a press release. “Thieman will be based in Washington, D.C., where she will lead the establishment of a new office and government relations team to support the company’s continued growth and evolution as a leading global food company.”
In his letter to Maloney, Vilsack maintained that the USDA had decided to continue working with JBS in early February 2021, which would place the determination prior to either him or Thieman assuming—or, in his case, resuming—their current roles.
But he also apologized for the five-month delay between the congresswoman’s query and his response, explaining that his department had been “further reviewing the steps that had been taken related to the Federal Acquisition Regulation.”
The USDA did not respond to repeated questions about what that review entailed, or about whether he or his staff had been in contact with Thieman during that time.
JBS, for its part, insisted that Thieman has never lobbied Vilsack personally, nor has her work touched directly on its status as a federal vendor.
“She has not engaged with the Secretary on any JBS-related matters, and did not lobby USDA on matters related to federal contracting opportunities,” spokeswoman Nikki Richardson told The Daily Beast.
JBS has long sought to distance itself from Joesley and Wesley Batista, the deep-pocketed Brazilian siblings at the center of its corruption scandals, but their company J&F Investimentos remains its largest shareholder.
Jeff Hauser, founder of the anti-corruption Revolving Door Project, told The Daily Beast that the situation with Thieman was unfortunately all-too-typical. Vilsack himself, after all, took a million-dollar job with a dairy trade group after the end of his first tenure as agriculture secretary—and JBS enjoyed a cozy relationship with ex-President Donald Trump, who rewarded the firm with two seats on a health advisory committee.
The best solution, he argued, would be for the USDA to adopt a policy of “heightened scrutiny” toward entities that hire former government employees, and immediately publish the substance of all communications between any ex-agency staffer and current public servant.
“U.S. Department of Agriculture has historically been one of the most corporate-captured departments of government under presidents of both parties,” Hauser told The Daily Beast. “If Vilsack wants to cap off his career and develop a legacy as a reformer rather than a run-of-the-mill cog in a depressing status quo, he needs to send a signal that hiring former USDA senior staff will not earn you goodwill at his department.”