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SuperConference Keynote Panel offers inside look at the story behind “The Informant”

How a collaborator became a criminal

“The Informant” was a 2009 movie (based on a book by Kurt Eichenwald) starring Matt Damon as Mark Whitacre—a bumbling executive cooperating with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to expose a price-fixing scheme at his company. The opening keynote panel at SuperConference 2012 gave attendees an inside look at the true story behind the movie, and one of the most important criminal antitrust cases in history. Panelists were some of the people closest to the Whitacre saga, from the FBI agent who handled the case (pictured at left), to Whitacre’s former defense attorney.

The story begins with Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), a Fortune 50 food processing company.  Whitacre was president of the bio-products division, and cooperated with the FBI to reveal the deal ADM had with its competitors to fix the price of lysine, an amino acid used in animal feed.

The FBI quickly amassed damning evidence against ADM—Whitacre recorded the president of the company as saying “our competitors are our friends; our customers are the enemy.”

The problem “was that we had a wackadoodle for an informant,” said panelistJames Mutchnik, who at the time was in the Department of Justice Anti-Trust Division and is now a partner at Kirkland & Ellis.

Not only was Whitacre a reckless informant, once opening his briefcase to reveal a tape recorder hidden inside during a meeting between ADM and its foreign competitors, but he was eventually revealed as an embezzler, who stole $9.5 million from ADM.  And so, the man who should have been the FBI’s star witness in taking down ADM found himself with a target on his chest, only making matters worse by repeatedly talking to reporters against the advice of his lawyer.

“Matt Damon gave a good performance, showing how screwy Mark Whitacre was,” said Scott Lassar, former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois and now a partner at Sidley Austin. “It was supposed to be a comedy, but it wasn’t so funny at the time.”

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