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    Guilt and greed

    Kurt Eichenwald's The Informant, tells about a corporate whistle-blower who was also an embezzler.

    By KRIS HUNDLEY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published November 19, 2000


    The FBI thought it had an airtight case of price-fixing against Archer Daniels Midland Co., one of the nation's most powerful corporations.

    What it didn't know was that its informant, a senior executive with ADM, was siphoning $9-million from his company at the same time he was wearing a wire tap for the feds.

    Thankfully, Mark Whitacre's schizoid motives of guilt and greed didn't totally derail the government's three-year investigation.

    ADM, which touts itself in National Public Radio sponsorships as the "Supermarket to the world," paid $100-million in fines for conspiring to fix the price of food additives. Two of its top executives, including the son of the company's politically connected chief executive, received two-year prison terms for their part in the international scheme. And the government used what it had learned in the ADM investigation to pursue price-fixing settlements totaling more than $1-billion against numerous other corporations, including vitamin manufacturers.

    And Whitacre, the golden boy of ADM who had delusions of coming out on top -- like a hero in a John Grisham novel -- was sentenced to nine years in jail.

    New York Times reporter, Kurt Eichenwald, weaves a fascinating tale of the ADM investigation inThe Informant. Eichenwald takes what hit the newspapers in scattershot fashion over a number of years and pulls it together in a cohesive narrative of a corporation that placed itself above the law, an ambitious executive who preferred lies over the truth and determined FBI agents whose hard work was nearly jeopardized not only by their informant, but also by their bosses at the Department of Justice.

    In just over 550 pages, Eichenwald lays out the chronology of the investigation, from its beginnings in an off-handed comment by Whitacre as the FBI chased a completely different lead. Eichenwald hints that all is not as it seems when Whitacre intersperses his work wearing hidden microphones for the FBI with mysterious trips to a Swiss bank and a colleague in Mexico, returning with satchels full of cash.

    The story is best told during the chase: As Whitacre, with a cassette recorder sewn into the lining of his suit jacket and another in his briefcase, tapes ADM executives bantering with their Japanese competitors about fixing the price and production levels of lysine, an additive in animal feed.

    Eichenwald's narrative bogs down as the case progresses to prosecution and a turf battle erupts at the Department of Justice, with the fraud division chasing Whitacre's wrong-doings, the anti-trust division homing in on ADM and dozens of lawyers jumping into the fray. There's a four-page list of main characters at the front of the book; about half way through the convoluted tale it becomes an essential reference point as the reader tries to separate the good guys from the bad in a world where everybody's hat is slightly gray.

    Eichenwald, a two-time winner of the George Polk award for excellence in journalism and a finalist for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize, is fastidious in his attention to detail. He conducted more than 800 hours of interviews and reviewed 150 undercover tapes in reconstructing the story; twenty pages of footnotes tell the reader how he knew everything from the decor of the Decatur Country Club to the fact that it was foggy as an FBI agent drove along Interstate 72 in Illinois on Nov. 9, 1992.

    There is one misstep by the author. About 30 pages from the end of the book, which has been written from the perspective of an omniscient third person, Eichenwald suddenly introduces himself into the story. He had covered the ADM story for five years for the Times; he was one of several reporters from competing publications who had been contacted by Whitacre as he tried to maintain the illusion that the whole world was ganging up on a poor, victimized whistle-blower.

    As the government wised up to Whitacre's duplicity, Whitacre fed Eichenwald, as well as a reporter from Fortune magazine, allegations of FBI corruption. Eichenwald questioned the evidence Whitacre supplied, supposedly proving his allegations. Fortune's reporter did not, and ran with the story.

    Eichenwald's response was to consult with psychiatrists, then confront Whitacre with proof of his lies. Whitacre confessed and went off to a psychiatric hospital. Eichenwald had a front-page story that shot holes in Fortune's supposed scoop. "Archer Daniels informer admits recent deception," Eichenwald's story read.

    In an epilogue, Eichenwald describes his visit to Whitacre in jail, where he's found life less stressful than his schizophrenic existence as an ADM executive, FBI informant and corporate embezzler.

    Eichenwald follows that vignette with a description of Dwayne Andreas stepping down as ADM's chairman after a quarter century, handing over the reins to his nephew Allen, rather than to his son, a convicted felon. Andreas, a confidante to world leaders from Hubert Humphrey to Mikhail Gorbachev, had his empire destroyed by a pathological liar whose tales held a kernel of devastating truth.

    - Kris Hundley is a Times staff writer

    THE INFORMANT

    By Kurt Eichenwald

    Broadway Books,$26

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