I don't get out much, but I do love to read. So while I have yet to see the movie, The Informant, released this past September, I did read the book, published in 2000. The book is fantastic, and I commend it to anyone interested in a sustained look at how the Government puts together a white-collar prosecution.
Don't roll your eyes, now. There is more to the criminal law that blood, lust and gore. Greed can leave a trail every bit as fascinating. And it did in the case of Mark Whitacre, a complex figure at the heart of the federal government's examination of price-fixing by the Archer Daniels Midland corporation during the 1990s.
I stumbled upon the book while reading up on the use of confidential informants in preparation for a trial. Frankly, I was ordering some odds and ends on Amazon, when the computer's alogrithm suggested I might also enjoy this book. Why not? I thought.
I groaned silently when the book arrived. It's 600-pages long. And fasinated as I am by the arcania of criminal law, I wondered whether I a book on price fixing could really hold my interest. It did. I spent several nights in the past week transfixed, calculating the benefits of sleep versus the pleasures of fine writing and an engaging narrative.
The Informant was written by Kurt Eichenwald, who reported the story for The New York Times. He relays the story with the quiet confidence of a man who has mastered his record.
As the plot thickens and unfolds, I found myself thinking again about the causes of crime. Mark Whitacre appeared to have it all. A young Ph.D. from Cornell, he turned his knowledge of nutritional biochemistry to the service of giant corporations aspiring to improve food production worldwide. Given responsibility for production of lysine, an amino acid essential to our diet, Whitacre soon faces production difficulties at his plant. When the possibility of industrial espionage is raised, the FBI launches an investigation. Whitacre flips early on and is soon wired and attending meetings around the globe at which the major producers of lysine fix both production quotas and prices.
What is in this for Whitacre? He harbors fantasies of bringing down the extant leadership of the corporation and being named chief executive officer by acclamation when outraged shareholders learn about the price fixing. This is the sort of narcissistic daydream all of us harbor from time to time. But what distinguished us from Whitacre is that we can tell our fantasies from reality. The line became blurred in Whitacre's case, and the result was utter chaos: He squirreled away millions while serving as an FBI cooperative witness. And he lied to the feds about it. When he was caught, counsel for Archer Daniels Midland tried to torpedo the investigation of price-fixing by dislcosing Whitacre's lies. It didn't work, and Whitacre ended up witha long prison, serving most of it. He is now apparently living on the West Coast and is CEO of a biotechnology company.
Whitacre fascinates me. He did not seem utterly without the ability to distinguish truth from fiction; he simply thought he could outsmart the world and fool not just the FBI, but shareholders, his colleagues, and, in the end, even his wife. When he fires one lawyer who tried to counsel him, I sensed the lawyer's relief. It is hard work representing a person whose private vision of the rational does not correspond to what the world regards as reasonable. Many are the hours experience lawyers count as lost to the voids of those poor souls who are unmoored to the world the rest of us take for granted.
I rate Eichenwald as one of the best non-fiction works on how an actual case developes. I rate it the white-collar crime equivalent of Jonathan Haar's A Civil Action. Sure, it took me ten years to find the book. I pass along this review so that you can find it now. It's a great read.