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Insight on corporate misconduct

A radio show details how an infamous price-fixing case changed antitrust investigations.

´╗┐Almost every weekday, as I drive to and from work, I often take in an episode of This American Life on my TAL app. The hour-long radio show is a mix of true stories about everyday life, in-depth reports on newsworthy events, and short fiction. Each episode follows a theme, and episodes are broken into different acts, so you usually get a variety of programming in each show. But occasionally, a story is so interesting or complex, host Ira Glass dedicates an entire episode to one topic.  

This week, as I was randomly choosing an episode, I stumbled upon “The Fix is In.” The entire episode covers a three-year period in the early 1990s in which Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) executive Mark Whitacre worked as an informant to the FBI in an effort to uncover a price-fixing scheme within his company. (The show caught the attention of director Steven Soderbergh after it originally aired in 2000, and he decided to make it into a movie—“The Informant!,” released in 2009.) It details how five companies, including ADM, colluded to drive up the price of lysine, an animal-feed additive. The episode included audio recordings of the corruption taking place, and interviews with FBI agents, prosecutors and Whitacre. It also details the extraordinary talent Whitacre had as an informant, as well as his ultimate downfall.

Although the case is nearly 20 years old, the lesson shouldn’t be lost on any of us. In the end, ADM was fined $100 million for its misconduct—the largest antitrust fine at the time (in 1995) and 10 times more than any previous antitrust fine. But only four years later, ADM’s fine was only the fifth largest. And in that time, the Justice Department had netted $1 billion in fines from other companies for antitrust violations.

“[The ADM case] changed how the antitrust division and the entire Justice Department viewed business conduct,” Federal Prosecutor Jim Mutchnik (now a partner at Kirkland & Ellis) told Glass in the broadcast, adding that Whitacre’s role in the investigation played a large part in changing antitrust enforcement policy. According to Mutchnik, before the ADM scandal, it was rare for the antitrust division to conduct search warrants, use tape-recorded evidence and engage in confrontational interviews. But all that changed with Whitacre.

Regardless of whether you’re familiar with the story, this insightful episode is worth your time—whether as a reminder of the prevalence of corporate misconduct or for pure entertainment. To listen to TAL’s free podcast of this story, visit thisamericanlife.org.

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Cathleen Flahardy

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