Meatpacking plants have been among the most devastated workplaces during the coronavirus pandemic, with the cramped working conditions and lack of consequential federal oversight leading to scores of COVID-19 infections and deaths.
But some Republican officials have remained surprisingly tight-lipped about the industry's poor COVID record — including Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, who has been one of the top recipients in Congress of PAC money from JBS meatpacking — over the past decade.
This cycle, his reelection campaign received more funds from JBS than any other member of Congress, with the exception of Rep. Josh Winegarner of Texas. Winegarner received a $10,000 donation from the company's political action committee, JBS USA LLC PAC, while Gardner has amassed $7,000 in donations so far.
Despite the company coming under mounting criticism for its lack of coronavirus protections following the biggest localized outbreak in Colorado — in addition to SEC and DOJ investigations into their Brazilian majority owners, according to court documents — Gardner's office and campaign refused to comment about the donation on the record.
In a local talk radio interview, Gardner was hesitant to say anything overly negative about JBS, and dodged a question on whether they were being straightforward with him about their record-setting outbreak.
Every time Gardner has been up for reelection since 2012, he has been in the top two for donations from members of the company and its affiliated PAC. His haul from the company now totals $24,000.
Gardner called essential workers 'the real heroes' but failed to hold JBS to account
The JBS plant in Greely, Colorado, shut down on April 15 when cases continued to spread.
Gardner praised an initiative spearheaded by Vice President Mike Pence to get federal testing for JBS employees so the facility could stay open.
However, the 5,000 tests promised by Pence never arrived, and the plant reopened without testing all employees.
The Local 7 chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union criticized Gardner, asking, "So Cory, where are the tests?"
While Gardner's campaign and office would not comment on the record for this story, a KNUS talk radio interview played into what the union described as hypocrisy.
In the interview, Gardner called essential workers "the real heroes" of the pandemic, but when asked about the concerns from employees about the lack of testing and safety measures, the senator made sure not to come down too heavily on company brass.
"It's my understanding that at least through the Governor [Jared Polis] and what he said, that any employee at JBS, if you want a test, you can get a test. At least that's what the Governor said last week," he said. "We have to protect our workforce, not just at JBS, at businesses across the state that remain open."
When pressed by KNUS radio host Stephen Tubbs if JBS had been honest with him, Gardner dodged the question, only going so far as to say "it's important they live up to their word."
"Time and again these workers are labeled essential, but are treated as disposable," Kim Cordova, President of the UFCW Local 7, said in a statement.
"We have come to expect this rhetoric from JBS, but we expect more from our elected leaders," she added. "Senator Gardner talks big but acts small — and where workers are concerned — doesn't act at all."
JBS also faces legal scrutiny over its alleged ties to Venezuela's Maduro regime
In addition to their coronavirus workplace issues, JBS is under investigation by the US Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission for potential violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, according to court documents obtained by Insider.
In October 2019, Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. and Bob Menendez, D-NJ sent a joint letter to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin calling for an investigation into JBS for alleged ties to the Maduro regime in Venezuela and the Chinese Government.
Gardner was one of several other lawmakers to sign onto the letter, signaling that at least his staff has been aware of the company's ethical and potential legal issues well before the coronavirus outbreak made headlines.
JBS' legal issues center around their majority owners, Joesley and Wesley Batista of Brazil.
The Batista's father and the company's founder, José Batista Sobrinho, admitted to bribing "more than 1,800 Brazilian politicians in amounts totaling more than $150 million in order to illicitly acquire loans and financing from the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) and several Brazilian pension funds," according to the Rubio-Menendez letter.
Concerns over the Batista's business dealings prompted Gardner's Colorado Senate colleague Michael Bennet to return PAC money he had taken from JBS when he was running for president.
Gardner has not done so.
In a statement to Insider, a JBS spokesman ticked through the company's progress regarding COVID-19 safety since the onset of the pandemic.
"Since February, JBS USA has fundamentally changed the way we do business as a result of coronavirus," JBS Head of Corporate Affairs wrote.
"We have implemented hundreds of safety interventions and are following, oftentimes exceeding, all CDC and OSHA-issued guidance with regard to safety and social distancing."
On the legal front, Bruett noted that the company itself has not been accused of any wrongdoing and "has its own management team that leads all operations and has remained focused on running a strong and effective business."
The Batista brothers are still majority owners and obtained permission from a Brazilian judge back in March to attend the parent company's board meetings again.
"With regard to the letter by Sens. Menendez and Rubio, JBS S.A. has fully cooperated with all relevant authorities in a transparent manner regarding past events in Brazil," the company's spokesman wrote. "The company will continue to cooperate and respond to any subsequent inquiries."
In a list of safety measures being taken in Greely, the JBS statement included temperature checks, "ultraviolet (UV) germicidal air sanitation and plasma air technology," a dedicated cleaning staff, and "educating and encouraging team members to practice social distancing at home and in the community outside of work."
It did not include promises to provide actual COVID-19 testing to its employees.