Friday, September 18, 2009

Antitrust Goes to the Movies: The Informant!

This posting was written by Jeffrey May, Editor of CCH Trade Regulation Reporter.

It’s been nearly 13 years since the U.S. Department of Justice announced what was at the time the largest criminal antitrust fine in history. On October 15, 1996, Archer Daniels Midland Co. (ADM) agreed to plead guilty and pay a $100 million criminal fine for its role in two international conspiracies to fix prices for animal feeds.

Now, all these years later, the story of the man who cooperated with the government to expose the global antitrust conspiracy comes to the silver screen.

The Informant!—a Steven Soderbergh film opening today around the country—tells the story of Mark E. Whitacre, a rising star at ADM, the Decatur, Illinois-based agriculture processing company. Whitacre agreed to become an undercover mole to help the FBI investigate price fixing at ADM in the early 1990s.

For about two-and-a-half years, Whitacre acted as an undercover cooperating witness and secretly taped hundreds of hours of conversations and meetings with top ADM officials and the other conspirators held around the globe.

Whitacre doesn’t turn out to be the ideal government informant. The Seventh Circuit characterized Whitacre’s role in the investigation “as troublesome and, at times, criminal,” noting that he “he lied, cheated, stole and then lied some more.” However, the tapes helped bust the conspiracy.

Not only did ADM plead guilty and agree to pay a record fine, but three high-level ADM executives, including Whitacre himself, were also convicted of conspiring to fix prices. In addition, the whistle blower was convicted of embezzling from ADM, while the antitrust investigation was ongoing.

If you don’t get enough of antitrust at the office, then you might want to head to the movies this weekend to see Matt Damon take on the role of antitrust’s most infamous informant.

The initial reviews for The Informant! are positive. Critic Roger Ebert awarded the film four stars (see the full review here). The Rotten Tomatoes website, which collects reviews from a variety of sources and averages them into a single score, gave the movie a 76 percent (94 positive reviews out of 124 collected). Its consensus summary is “A charismatic turn by star Matt Damon and a consistently ironic tone boost this quietly funny satire about a corporate whistle-blower.”

Here is a link to the indictment against Whitacre.

The 7th Circuit decision affirming convictions of the other two ADM execs (2000-1 Trade Cases ¶72,944) appears here.

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