It sounds like a dry business story. In the early 1990s, Mark Whitacre, a division president at agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland, told the FBI that his firm was illegally fixing the prices of chemical fertilizers and food additives, thus indirectly stealing money from every shopper in every supermarket in the world. Whitacre secretly made audio and videotapes of his colleagues to back up his claims, and with his help, the Bureau forced ADM to pay a nine-digit fine and sent the company’s top executives to prison.
The thing is, Whitacre had some gigantic screws loose in his head, as detailed in Kurt Eichenwald’s amazing book The Informant. Many corporate whistle-blowers are disgruntled types looking to settle a score. Whitacre, on the other hand, was a rising star who believed that the company would reward him for his honesty. This naïvete is all the more astonishing when you consider that Whitacre himself was embezzling millions from ADM, taking kickbacks, and setting up shell companies to launder the money. Apparently he never considered that the FBI agents he talked to every day might catch on to what he was doing. Also, he was a secret operative who couldn’t keep secrets, needlessly jeopardizing the whole operation by telling friends inside the company that he was working for the feds. While the investigation that Whitacre set in motion slowly turned on him, he continued to see himself as the hero in a John Grisham novel. Eventually, someone noticed that many of his lies and even some of his actions were cribbed from The Firm.