on September 26, 2000
On the rare occasions when the banal details of corporate crime are uncovered, developed and prosecuted, the inside story is sometimes difficult to believe. Even more often, these stories, particularly those involving complex financial chicanery, fail to survive the conversion to film or print.
An obvious exception is "The Informant," Kurt Eichenwald's extraordinary new book about the Archer Daniels Midland Company price-fixing scandal in the mid-1990s. Mr. Eichenwald, an award-winning journalist at The New York Times, has balanced a cast of a nearly unimaginable characters with meticulous reporting and sourcing built on endless of hours of government tapes, documentary evidence and interviews.
Mr. Eichenwald's masterfully constructed narrative describes how ADM, the self-styled "Supermarket to the World," conspired with international competitors to corner food additive markets. The book focuses on Mark Whitacre, the wildly contradictory former ADM executive whose secret cooperation with the FBI apparently was intended to hide his own crimes. As Mr. Eichenwald writes, the book is about the "malleable nature of the truth," and how nothing in the ADM case was necessarily what it appeared to be. Along the way, the story is told in a way that "lend[s] temporary credence to the many lies told in this investigation," according to Mr. Eichenwald. In the end, the book accomplishes what few of its kind have: it has woven an otherwise tedious collection of technical and legal details and deceptions into one of the best tales of corporate crime in the past 20 years.
As the federal government found in its development of the ADM case, it's difficult to humanize corporate schemes, whether in civil or criminal litigation, or in the news or entertainment media. Mr. Eichenwald not only overcomes this obstacle, he has succeeded in producing a book that reads like a thriller. At one point in the book, in fact, a few of the characters even question whether Mr. Whitacre is acting out scenes from a John Grisham best-seller, "The Firm." Mr. Eichenwald also is fortunate to inherit an amazing cast of characters that includes not only Mr. Whitacre, the Andreas family, and high-level law enforcement agencies but also ADM's political network -- which at various times has included Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, Bob Dole, Dan Quayle, former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, and powerful Washington and New York law firms, among others.
My admiration of the author emanates in part from his reporting of the Prudential-Bache financial scandal in the early 1990s, both in The New York Times and in his book "Serpent on the Rock." As a part of the legal team that successfully represented 5,800 victimized investors in civil litigation against Pru-Bache, I believe Mr. Eichenwald was unequalled among journalists in his command of that subject matter. Even then, where "Serpent on the Rock" succeeded nicely in chronicling the Pru-Bache scandal, "The Informant" excels.
I believe that this book puts Mr. Eichenwald into the elite company of Jonathan Harr ("A Civil Action"), James B. Stewart ("Den of Thieves" and "Blind Eye"), Ken Auletta ("Greed and Glory on Wall Street"), and Bryan Burrough and John Helyar ("Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco").
on October 25, 2000
As a Decatur resident, I couldn't wait to get into this book and read the stories behind the headlines. I was not disappointed. Many of the names in the book are more than familiar to me. It was fascinating to relive the chronology, all the while remembering what kind of scuttlebutt was going about town at certain points of the story.
Eichenwald has told this tale well. There are times when it is difficult to follow, but not due to the writer. There were just so many people involved, keeping them straight almost requires a white board and colored markers. The characters were depicted well. Between Whitacre's obvious instability and the government's inability to coordinate itself, it was like watching the Grinch's sleigh teeter on the tip top of the mountain. Will it crash or won't it?
I did find a few errors in the story, but they were not central to the story. (E.g. there is no passenger train service in Decatur - I assumed the writer meant Springfield. And there were a few mix-ups concerning dates.)
One word of caution to anyone who reads this book, however. It's easy to think of ADM as some faceless giant plundering its way through the agri-buisness world. But remember; the actions for which ADM was fined and three people were sent to jail are the actions of a few individuals. ADM employs thousands that put in an honest day's work every day. I am proud to call many of these people my friends.
I read hundreds of books in a year, and this work is one of the best I have read in 2000. Kurt Eichenwald deserves an award for getting it through the attorneys and then to publication.
Eichenwald, a finalist for the year 2000 Pulitzer and winner of other awards for his writing, has not only taken a riddle, wrapped in mystery, and shrouded by an enigma,(a nod to Winston Churchill) and made it readable, he has created a brilliant book. He created a book that could stand as a work of Fiction and be a novel of excellence, or be true to this bizarre story that strains credibility so many times, and yet he manages to give every bit of credence the reader needs to believe. Mike Wallace of 60 minutes couldn't have dissected this tale with greater skill.
And if you think I jest about the novel it would make, if 19th Century is your style, think Wilkie Collins, or if your taste is more contemporary, perhaps Charles Palliser of Quincunx fame. That is the type of labyrinthine thought that would be required to conjure this story from thin air.
At the center of the story is what at first seems to be an all-too-common tale. American consumers have gotten a great deal of exposure recently as to how a company can, in the opinion of The Justice Department, be detrimental to the public welfare. I would suggest there are issues that make bureaucratic careers, and issues that are literally participants in the lives of nearly all of us, and they are important.
Unless you treat eating as an extreme sport, you probably have not snacked on any software lately, be it Microsoft, or even Apple. However in the case that this book covers, this company is in your favorite restaurant, your house, your kitchen, and before you continue, they are all over what sits on the end of your fork, every meal, of every day. This book involves a company that many will not recognize it is about the people who have appointed their company "Supermarket To The World". Now that level of arrogance just begs the question of who are these people, and how do they operate?
Archer Daniels Midland is responsible for many of those ingredients you will find on the label of what you consume. Ingredients like, oilseed products, emulsifiers, etc. They also produce flour for your local pizzeria, and lysine for the folks who raise your food. In addition they can produce political pressure proportionate to a company 50 times their
size. And finally they have a Human Resource Department that hired and almost handed the company over to an individual so bizarre, that in his more lucid moments he fancies himself, Whitacre, Mark Whitacre. His delusions of grandeur as a secret agent would be absurd if not for the role he was playing as the critical person in the government's efforts to take down ADM, and some of their partners scattered across 5 continents. In addition to being the world's supermarket, ADM also developed those skills necessary to run illegal businesses on a global scale.
An individual chooses to help the FBI gather evidence against the corrupt company he works for, what could be simpler, how many novels have used the same premise? Unfortunately for the 2 agents that put their careers on the line, and spend years of their life working with this person, there was nothing simple, they would have been pleased with complex. These two agents got chaos in its human form, their "informant".
All starts well, and then an inconsistency appears, no problem. Later a reported fact was not quite so factual, but whose memory is perfect? But then reality is turned upside down. A lie is a lie, is a lie about a lie a double negative, making it a truth? Do you believe the person, his recorded voice, the memo he wrote, or what he has told his attorney, or surely what he tells the U.S. Government's lawyers, perhaps a judge? And how is it possible for an Author to even attempt to put this episode of The Twilight Zone in to book form?
Eichenwald has done so, by creating something that is not your typical read. He breaks with convention without breaking or even bending the truth. As the Author stated, "the reader is deceived into believing fiction through the true recitation of fact.''
on May 28, 2004
Were this a review of a novel, I would criticize it for an overcomplicated, convoluted and essentially unbelievable plot. But it is a true story, one that will rivet your attention and leave your head spinning.
The basic story, that the large agri-business Archer Daniels Midland - ADM - was caught in an international price-fixing scam for food additives would merit coverage in Business Week but little else. The key to the story is the informant himself, Mark Whitacre, the President of one of ADM's largest and most successful divisions. Manipulative, deceitful, delusional, sociopathic ... these are accurate but inadequate descriptions of the man who sucked ADM, the FBI and the DOJ into a five-year whirlwind, played out on the headlines of every newspaper in the country; he will suck you in, too.
Who hasn't wondered what kind of knucklehead responds to those crazy scam letters and emails from Nigeria? Actually, so many Americans with access to large amounts of cash responded in the 1980s and 1990s that the FBI had to set up a special liaison office in Lagos to deal with them. Meet Mark Whitacre: brilliant biochemist, builder and President of a hugely successful division of a multi-national corporation; and hopelessly entangled by his crazy belief that he could hit the jackpot by aiding corrupt Nigerian officials. And more, much, much more.
The story will sweep you along, from one unbelievable plot twist to another, not reaching a crescendo until the very end. Great fun. But also a great testament to the American justice system. Battered on all sides by the media and politicians and wealthy corporate defendants and with an utterly unreliable witness, the FBI and the DOJ persevere and see their case through to what seems like a very satisfactory conclusion, all the compromises and plea bargains notwithstanding.
Eichenwald deserves great credit: not only for his real-time coverage of the story in the New York Times and the writing of this brilliant book, but also for the fact that he nearly simultaneously was covering the astonishing demise of Bache Halsey Stuart Shields in the Serpent On The Rock, another amazingly readable true story of human frailty.
In the antitrust case against Archer Daniels Midland for world-wide price fixing in lysine (a feed ingredient that makes animals grow more rapidly), the U.S. government relied on Mark Whitacre, an ADM executive. In legal terminology, he was playing the role of 'cooperating witness.' Eventually, three ADM executives would be sentenced to jail and a $100 million fine would be paid by the company to settle the case.
But while Whitacre was cooperating at one level, he was not at many other levels. He informed the FBI of the conspiracy in the beginning, or there would have been no continuing investigation and no case.
Although novels often have characters do things like that, it never happens in ordinary course. No executive in the middle of a price-fixing case had ever turned themselves in before. What a coup! Or was it?
For something strange was going on. In the beginning, Whitacre had attracted the attention of the FBI by having reported to ADM that a competitor was sabotaging ADM's production of lysine with a virus. Soon in the investigation, Whitacre admitted to the FBI that this had never happened. Tipped off that Whitacre was flaky, the government relied on many lie detector tests and tape recordings to get the facts. What they never realized was that Whitacre couldn't tell a straight story if his life depended on it.
Then came the biggest surprise. Just as the government took its case public, ADM came back with charges that Whitacre had been stealing millions of dollars from the company while serving as a cooperating witness with the government. The company was right, and Whitacre was successfully prosecuted for these thefts. ADM also tried to make the case that the FBI caused this to happen, but was rebuffed in its arguments.
As a result of his double-dealing, Whitacre had blown his immunity agreement with the government and was one of the three ADM executives who were convicted of the price-fixing conspiracy.
The story is written from the perspective of the FBI agents conducting the investigation. You will be fooled, along with them, as they pursue the case. It makes for the most complicated, convoluted set of events you can imagine. John Le Carre's stories are much simpler, by comparison.
Although I had read about the case as it unfolded in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times (where Eichenwald covered it), the details came as a surprise in many cases. Eichenwald has gotten access to a tremendous amount of raw material including 800 hours of interviews with 100 people, 10,000 plus pages of data including secret grand jury testimony, and transcripts from secret recordings made by Whitacre.
As a result, he has created a detailed dialogue of key events that reads like a screenplay. You will feel like you are there. The techniques are like fiction, but the material is fact. I cannot resist pointing out that this book reaffirms the maxim that truth is always stranger than fiction.
Here's the author's wrap-up on the lessons here: 'But in the end, it was Mark Whitacre -- a person who remains as puzzling as he is tragic -- who was most most damaged by his falsehoods.'
Certainly, one question you will have is how ADM could put such a kook in charge of an important product area. I can only report that in my career as a management consultant, I have met a number of such fakes in the ranks of senior management of client companies. Reference checking would have spotted any one of these frauds, as it would have with Whitacre. He had lied about his academic background (apparently over a third of job applicants do). So ADM was sloppy.
In this subject of how frauds get ahead in companies, Eichenwald had the chance to make this book a broad perspective on the weaknesses of the American corporation at the end of the 20th century. He passed on that opportunity, which diminishes the potential of this otherwise wonderful book.
What surprised me was that the FBI continued to lend any credibility to Whitacre as long as it did. The fakes I have met destroyed their credibility totally with me within four hours in each case. I wouldn't ever talk to them again. If someone is untrustworthy in one area, they are probably untrustworthy in all other areas. It looks to me like experience in working with criminals has made the FBI too used to being with criminals.
The secret taping parts of the book are hilarious. The equipment is always proving to be untrustworthy, or the operator untrained, or is exposed by Whitacre for all to see. But he clearly loved the life as 007 (he called himself 0014, because he thought he was twice as smart as 007). So you'll have some comedy to alleviate your amazement at this unusual case.
On the other hand, you'll be left with a serious question. How can these crimes be stopped if the government does not work with flaky informants and cooperating witnesses? They probably cannot. But much more needs to be done to supervise these criminals, lest they create much more crime in the process. A good reason for asking this question is because investigations begun since this case suggest that widespread price-fixing is more common than believed.
A good lesson for you to consider is to ask yourself who, among those you know, is also a fake. Don't feel like you need to expose them. That could create unintended harm. But by knowing that they are frauds, you can better protect yourself against them. Who has asked you to do an unusual transaction? Who has asked you to keep a strange secret? Who has told you somethinhg totally weird? Be careful when these situations arise, for you could become an accessory to a crime if you cooperate with the person. That certainly happened to many people who knew Mark Whitacre.
Be cautious in placing your trust!
on January 28, 2001
Get ready for a string of groggy days at work, because this fantastic story will keep you up into the wee hours with its wild characters and unpredictable plot twists. I always wondered what those Supermarket to the World folks were up to, with their friendly yet deliberately vague commercials on NPR and the Sunday morning talk shows. Now I know - scheming, stealing, and stabbing customers in the back.
Kurt Eichenwald does a superb job of bringing the characters to life, especially the FBI agents who slogged through plenty of dark days in this lengthy investigation. What will keep you hooked though, are the endless shenanigans of their main witness. His constant machinations rival any complex plot twist in modern fiction. Enjoy!
on March 4, 2016
What a fantastically heavily researched book and the author must by now be quite used to commendation of his smooth and flowing style. Reading like a thriller, this incredible story is breathtaking and has the reader shaking their head. I certainly did and so did others I've spoken to whom have read it. The Informant is primarily Mark Whitacre. To this reader, a pathological liar and deeply disturbed individual. He has the FBI and so many others running in circles. There is price fixing taking place between ADM, other various US corporations as well as Japanese and Korean companies. Lysine, Citric Acid, MSG and many others are all at play here in this saga of greed both corporate and individual. And, once again as has been seen over the years law enforcement agencies are tied up many times in their own MO's rather than working together cohesively. In this case, thankfully, things came together. The I's were dotted and the T's crossed to allow justice to exact at least some good measure of its power. A fantastic read.
on February 21, 2016
OMG!! First what an amazing story and it was incredible how Eichenwald chronicled in such a way that it was like reading a novel. Hard to believe that everything was factual. As they say, life can be stranger than fiction. I was totally captivated by the book and could not stop reading. I stayed up late reading because I just couldn't put it down. Loved the book and hats off to Kurt Eichenwald. I'm looking at reading some of his other works.
on March 19, 2016
It's difficult to fully appreciate the work Kurt Eichenwald did to write "The Informant: A True Story" until you glance at the listing of the cast of characters. He based the book on more than 800 hours of interviews with about 100 sources as well as digesting thousands of confidential records as well as transcripts of FBI recordings. As a former reporter, I can remember some of the time-consuming investigations I conducted on a much smaller scale. Eichenwald's devotion to accuracy and completeness occasionally gets in the way of dramatic story telling but that's the only way to tell such a complex story. I'm one reader who is grateful Eichenwald too the time to tell this story.
That being said, this book is not for everyone. If you prefer to have fast-paced action in the books you read and generally avoid complicated plots, avoid this story. However, if you enjoy delving into the background of a high-profile criminal case to learn how things really work at the FBI, the Justice Department and corporate America, this is the book for you.
on January 30, 2001
This is a great story in the hands of a very skilled reporter. It's one of those read-late-into-the-night books that caused me to be bleary eyed every morning last week! Just couldn't wait to finish it and find out what happened. One of the jacket blurbs says it "reads like Grisham." Heck, it reads a lot better than Grisham because the story is true and Eichenwald is a far better writer than Grisham. Get it; you'll enjoy it...and I can guarantee you'll never come across another story like it.