Jeh Johnson, President Obama’s nominee to head Homeland Security, represented a disgraced scientist who was sentenced to 30 months in prison for planting a fried rat’s tail in his son’s Happy Meal french fries as part of a failed extortion attempt.
Michael Zanakis took a rat’s tail from the medical research laboratory where he worked, had it fried and then placed it in a package of french fries he bought at a Long Island McDonald’s on Jan. 15, 1996, prosecutors said at the time.
Zanakis threatened to go public with accusations that McDonald’s served the fried rat’s tail to his son — who he said had bitten into and swallowed part of the tail — unless the company paid him $5 million.
“He planted the tail and thought he would get away with it,” Assistant US Attorney Leonard Lato said. “The next day he was on the phone with McDonald’s. We had him on tape demanding money.”
Despite being represented by the future nominee for Homeland Security secretary, Zanakis was convicted of both the rat-tail fraud and a 1993 scheme in which he had planted bits of grease in a can of Coca-Cola Classic and then taken $4600 from the Coca-Cola Company to keep quiet about it.
Johnson, who will be charged with overseeing DHS’s vast domestic anti-terrorism and surveillance apparatus, suggested his client deserved pity because his threats against the company had stopped short of violence, and he also seemed to countenance Zanakis’ committing fraud in the service of a higher truth.
“He didn’t threaten to blow up a McDonald’s, he didn’t threaten to break anybody’s arm,” Johnson told AP. “What he said he was going to do was put a spotlight on something McDonald’s wanted kept in the dark.”
Johnson, then an attorney with the Manhattan firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, also characterized Zanakis as the victim of a conspiracy by two of the nation’s largest companies, alleging that Coke and McDonald’s convinced the federal government to crush a man who was disturbed that his child might have been harmed by eating a rat’s tail.
Johnson claimed Zanakis had intended to go to the news media to tell his story about unsanitary conditions until McDonald’s brought up the issue of a monetary settlement.
“[T]his prosecution is an 80-mile-an-hour freight train bearing down on a single, naive unsuspecting citizen, and…the McDonald’s Corporation…is in the engineer’s seat,” Johnson told Newsday on November 20, 1997.
“Coke employees are going to be the very first set of witnesses the government gets to call in this McDonald’s-inspired prosecution. Well guess whose soda goes into all those soda machines in those thousands of McDonald’s around the country?” Johnson added, tying the vast conspiracy together in a neat package.
While Johnson went on to prominent political appointments in the Obama and Clinton administrations, Zanakis appears not to have been as successful. In 2011 he was arrested in Florida on nine counts of giving false information to a pawnbroker. His occupation at the time was listed as “Unemployed Med Consultant.”
Johnson did not return a request for comment.