The Informant: A True Story
In late 1992, the FBI was called to investigate a bizarre extortion scheme at the Decatur, Illinois, headquarters of Archer Daniels Midland, the country's largest producer of food and grain additives. (ADM is so powerful that it calls itself, not unreasonably, "Supermarket To The World.") One of its many commodities is lysine, a chicken-fattening chemical manufactured in giant fermenters by "feeding" dextrose to tiny microbes. The head of ADM's bioproducts division, an executive named Mark Whitacre, claimed that a Japanese competitor was killing the microbes by infecting them with a virus and asked $10 million to get the plant back online. This story in itself promises a potent account of corporate espionage, but in The Informant, that's not the half of itor even an eighth, for that matter. Kurt Eichenwald, a seasoned white-collar-crime reporter for The New York Times, opens his gripping book with a quote from Pirandello's Six Characters In Search Of An Author, the first clue that truth would prove to be a slippery customer in this andmark case. The author wisely chooses to tell the story through the eyes of agents assigned to sift through the towering haystack of lies. As it happened, the extortion plot was just one in a series of whoppers; the real crimes were in another league altogether. Motivated by a sudden crisis of conscience (a lie, of course), Whitacre confessed to local FBI agents that ADM executives regularly engaged in price-fixing with their chief competitors in Japan and South Korea, setting the cost and production volume of lysine on several continents. Put into effect under the dictum "competitors are friends and customers are the enemy," these shady dealings affected everyone from farmers to meat companies to the poor saps who had to pay a little extra for their Chicken McNuggets. With Whitacre brought in as a cooperating witness, the FBI spent two years collecting evidence, as he secretly taped meetings in hotels and conference rooms around the world. Enthusiastic at times, unreliable and evasive at others, Whitacre hid far more than he let on. He proved to be a pathological liar, involving himself in embezzlement and fraud on a massive scale. A compulsively readable legal procedural, The Informant has earned comparisons to the works of John Grisham, not least because Whitacre actually modeled his life after The Firm. But with its dizzying array of subplots, twists, and political maneuvers, the book is more like Grisham's entire oeuvre compressed into 600 pages. Crafting a cohesive, jaw-dropping narrative from contradictory sources and an enormous cast of characters, Eichenwald makes sense out of a case too complicated to follow in piecemeal newspaper reports. More than just a good yarn, The Informant takes a hard look at a corporate culture ruled by arrogance and unbridled greed.