Like many other agribusiness conglomerates, Archer Daniels Midland has multiple convictions for price-fixing in the commodities market, but their most noteworthy violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 was the role they played in fixing the price of lysine in the early 1990s. When added to animal feed, the lysine amino acid helps animals, especially chickens, fatten up for slaughter more quickly, providing a boost to profits in an industry known for razor-thin profit margins. Unlike any other price-fixing conspiracy before or since, ADM's involvement in a global cartel was meticulously recorded by a mole inside the organization while the conspiracy was underway, offering an unprecedented level of insight into the nuts and bolts of an international white-collar crime syndicate.
Mark Whitacre was no average mole, either; he was a well-liked, high-ranking executive in charge of ADM's massive bioproducts division, and he willingly accepted a tremendous amount of risk during the three years he wore a wire for the FBI. As head of bioproducts, Whitacre was responsible for boosting ADM's lysine production as well as helping ADM vice-chairman Michael Andreas secure a spot for ADM in a lysine cartel operated by Ajinimoto and Kyowa Hakko Kogyo of Japan, and Sewon Corporation and Cheil Jedung of Korea. ADM's formidable lysine output and strong desire to get in on the price-fixing scheme were not enough to trigger an immediate invite; it took three separate market-flooding attacks by ADM to convince the cartel it was a serious player and worthy of admission.
In 1992, Whitacre started talking to the FBI under the pretense of investigating threats of extortion and sabotage against ADM's then-faltering lysine production facility. The story was just a cover that gave Whitacre a plausible reason to meet regularly with federal agents. It was also the first in a mind-boggling chain of lies that Whitacre wove into the FBI investigation. As an undercover informant, Whitacre was both legendary and exasperating. Over the next three years, he would record hundreds of hours of incriminating conversations using hidden devices, photocopy countless documents, and even convince his nervous co-conspirators to relocate their upcoming price-fixing summit from cartel-friendly Japan to a golf resort in Hawaii, an astonishing coup that would finally give the FBI the access they needed to secretly record the cartel's proceedings. Throughout the investigation, Whitacre was deluded enough to believe that by exposing ADM's illegal activities, ADM's shareholders and board of directors would reward him with a promotion to CEO once the current executives were convicted. However, Whitacre was also embezzling large amounts of money (totaling US$9M) from ADM during the investigation, which meant that no one - not even the FBI team who had planted a wire on him - was completely aware of what Whitacre was up to. The feds were focused capturing and assembling the mountain of evidence they knew would be necessary for their investigation to result in criminal convictions, but their only man on the inside was operating like a bi-polar, bush-league James Bond who believed he could fool everyone.
When the FBI finally lowered the boom on June 27, 1995, they had built a bulletproof antitrust case against ADM and its Asian business partners, but it was all in jeopardy because of Whitacre's embezzling and various kickback schemes. ADM's defense attorneys jumped on the chance to discredit the government's star witness by hammering on Whitacre's corrupt acts. Because of his lies, fraud, and other machinations which appear to be inspired by Grisham's "The Firm", Whitacre received a longer prison sentence than the executives he helped incriminate, and also lost his immunity in the price-fixing case. Whitacre was ultimately convicted of the same antitrust crimes as his superiors at ADM, but was allowed to serve his antitrust sentence and his 9-year fraud sentence simultaneously. After parole, Whitacre went back to work as a biotechnology executive.
ADM ended up paying US$100M in fines for the price-fixing case, an amount that seemed gigantic until a vitamin manufacturer racked up a half billion dollars in antitrust penalties in a different case not long after.