An Agriculture Department agency has charged two Silver Spring food brokerage companies with paying thousands of dollars in bribes to meat buyers for Giant Food Inc. and Richfood Inc., two of the biggest local supermarkets.
The civil complaints charge that Morris Hamberger, the former chief meat buyer at Giant, received more than $72,000 in alleged bribes over a 3 1/2-year period.
The alleged payments to the former Giant executive -- who was suspended more than a year ago when the USDA investigation was first disclosed and who took early retirement voluntarily -- were made by Associated Food Brokers Inc. and Associated Meats Inc. of Silver Spring, according to the USDA's description of events.
The administrative complaint filed by the Packers and Stockyards Administration, which regulates meat packers and brokers, also named Bernie Tompkins of Rockville and Clint F. Bedsaul, of Sparta, N.C., the owners of the two firms.
According to the complaint, the two meat brokerages paid commercial bribes to two former meat buyers at Giant and one former meat buyer at Richfood, an association of independent retail grocers with headquarters in Mechanicsville, Va. Secret payments also were made by the brokers to a former salesman for Monfort of Colorado, a large meat packer, USDA investigators alleged.
None of the three firms, Giant Food, Richfood Inc. or Monfort, knew of or consented to the alleged bribes, according to the Agriculture Department.
Peter Isakoff, a Washington lawyer representing Bedsaul, Tomkins and the two meat brokers, said his clients deny all the Agriculture Department charges but have no further comment.
No charges have been filed against the supermarket officials who allegedly received the bribes. Agriculture Department officials said that while the department has authority to regulate meat packers and food brokers, it has no authority to take action against supermarkets or their employes.
According to the Agriculture Department's complaint, the recipient of the largest improper payments from the food brokers was Hamberger, formerly vice president responsible for meat, poultry and seafood operations at Giant. Between January l980 and July l983, Associated Food and Associated Meats made 45 "secret cash payments" totaling $72,930 to or for the benefit of Hamberger, the department's complaint said.
Another Giant Food official, former meat purchasing director Herman Pearce, received or was offered ,l00 in cash and another ,089 in clothing, gift certificates, lodging and an "electrical accessory," according to the Agriculture Department complaint. The department said the brokerages had paid the bribes to Hamberger and Pearce for the purposes of "inducing and influencing" them to purchase or cause Giant to purchase meat, meat products, poultry and poultry products from Associated Meats and Associated Food.
Pearce and Hamberger did not respond to a reporter's inquiries.
David Rutstein, general counsel and senior vice president of Giant, said both Hamberger and Pearce retired from the company voluntarily l8 months ago. He said Giant "had no knowledge and did not consent to the act alleged in the complaint."
Rutstein said Giant is satisfied that consumers were not affected by the alleged bribe scheme and said Giant no longer does business with Associated Meats or Associated Foods.
According to the Agriculture Department's complaint, Associated Foods and Associated Meat between February 1980 and November 1981 also paid five secret cash payments, totaling $5,900, to Bobby R. Bryant Sr., formerly a meat purchasing manager and buyer at Richfood.
In a telephone interview, Bryant denied the government allegations. He said there was "no way" the Agriculture Department charges were true.
Bryant said that after leaving Richfood, he worked for Tompkins and Bedsaul for about l8 months, but he said he never received secret payments from them while working for the Richmond firm. He said Agriculture Deparment investigators had interviewed him in connection with the bribery investigation but had told him that "they found me all clean."
Leonard E. Sainer Jr., president of Richfood, said his company had fully cooperated with the Agriculture Department investigation. He said investigations by the government and Richfood had determined that there were "no improper actions by any current employe." He said there was "no overt indication" that consumers had suffered as a result of the alleged bribery by the meat brokers, who he said had been "substantial suppliers" of meat to Richfood.
The Agriculture Deparment complaint also charged that the two Silver Spring meat brokers in 1982 and 1983 made 6l secret cash payments totaling 9,030 to a meat salesman for Monfort of Colorado. The salesman was paid to "negotiate meat sales contracts favoring Associated Meats."
Investigators said Monfort was not aware of the payments. Myra Monfort, vice president and general counsel of the packing house, said that, based on information supplied by Agriculture Department investigators, the packer had "terminated the individual.