"The Informant" Reviewed by Marshall Sneider
by Marshall Snider
A high-level executive of a giant, multinational corporation contacts the Federal Bureau of Investigation and reports that his company is engaged in a major price-fixing conspiracy with its competitors. The executive agrees to wear a wire and secretly record meetings held throughout the world, at which the company and its competitors blatantly agree to set prices and limit production, to illegally maximize their profits at the expense of consumers.
This undercover FBI investigation proceeds for years. Eventually, it is discovered that the whistle blower has been taking illegal kickbacks from the company’s customers — in the millions of dollars. The informant, once considered to be an honest man seeking to right corporate wrongs, had informed on his employer as a way to distract the federal government from discovering his separate fraudulent activity.
Overlaid on this story line is the internal warfare among the feds as to who should control the price-fixing investigation and prosecution. Should it be the local FBI and U.S. Attorney? The Justice Department Antitrust Division (either locally or in Washington, D.C.) or the Fraud Section in Washington? The nearest large U.S. Attorney’s Office? FBI headquarters in Washington? The turf battles waged to see who will get the glory of busting a large, well-known and politically connected corporation, and the resulting stress on the overworked and underappreciated FBI agents who started the investigation, almost derail the entire effort.
Once the case surfaces from its undercover investigation, the power lawyers from Washington and New York enter the scene, playing hardball and using political connections (the chairman and CEO of the company is a friend of presidents). The fighting in the trenches gets ugly.
If this sounds like a good plot for a lawyer/courtroom novel, remember: truth is stranger than fiction. All of the above actually occurred in the 1990s, and someone had to write a book about it.
The company in question was Archer Daniels Midland, a conglomerate that processed grains and other farm products into oils, flours and fibers. Its products were found in virtually everything Americans ate and drank. The informant was Mark Whitacre, a rising young star in the ADM executive family whom some considered destined to run the company.
And the man who wrote about it all was Kurt Eichenwald, a reporter for The New York Times who covered the ADM scandals for his paper for five years. Eichenwald reviewed thousands of documents and interviewed more than 100 participants in this affair to recreate events in non-fiction novel format.
Conversations, meetings and conspiracies are detailed as if the reader is in the room with the conspirators, other ADM executives, FBI agents and lawyers involved in these scenarios. Eichenwald lets you travel the world with Whitacre as he meets with ADM competitors to play golf and fix prices under the watchful surveillance of the FBI, and while he engages in a cover-up of his other illegal activities.
This book is a page-turning reenactment of events at the highest levels of corporate America and law enforcement, including then-FBI director Louis Freeh. The legal and political maneuvering as the investigation becomes public and the targets bring in the power lawyers is of particular fascination to lawyers. And the effect of all of this on Whitacre, who melts down as the pressure grows and the screws are tightened from all sides, is enough to convince anyone that life is better if you never steal from your employer and then blow the whistle to the feds.