Rats in the Grain: The Dirty Tricks and Trials of Archer Daniels Midland, the Supermarket to the World
James B. Lieber
When James Lieber went to Court TV with his story of Archer Daniels Midland's (ADM) corporate criminality, a producer told him that the tale wasn't "slutty" enough. White-collar crime just doesn't make good television. The movie The Insider gave us heroism and intrigue in the struggle against Big Tobacco, but lysine, citric acid and high-fructose corn syrup--ADM's major products--just don't have the same negative cachet as the cigarette.
But at the end of 1996, Decatur, Ill.-based ADM pleaded guilty to price-fixing in the global lysine market and agreed to pay a $100 million fine, at that time the largest ever levied by the United States. At the end of 1998, three of the company's former top officials were convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to federal prison. ADM--one of the world's largest processors of oilseeds, corn, and wheat--still faces potential indictment for price-fixing in other markets, and some current and former executives could still face prosecution. Since ADM trades in global agricultural markets, the damage was far-reaching--the company had to pay the Canadian Competition Bureau $11 million, and in June of this year the European Commission fined it $45 million dollars, labeling "the supermarket to the world" an anti-competitive cartel.
The facts of the ADM story are dramatic, with lots of cloak-and-dagger intrigue, which should make for a rippin' good tale. Unfortunately, author Lieber's
lawyerly thoroughness works to undermine the good story in his material. In the end, his exhaustive research is a necessary starting point for understanding the ADM story, and Rats in the Grain ultimately shows how the ostensibly invisible hand of American capitalism can line the pockets of a few executives.
Lieber enjoyed unique access to the players involved, particularly Mark Whitacre, a young hotshot who was rising through the ranks at ADM when the FBI recruited him as a mole. Whitacre recorded hours of conversation among ADM executives, and those tapes became the central evidence in the 1996 trial. (Whitacre was no saint, however--he was ultimately convicted of embezzling $9.5 million dollars.) Lieber's access to the case's insiders represents a great opportunity, but the author struggles too hard for balance in this story by providing readers every possible detail. It's too much. He, or an editor, could have cut this book by at least a third and provided a more substantive critique of these corporate machinations.
If you watch public television or the Sunday morning TV talk shows or listen to public radio, you've probably been subjected to ADM's wholesome pitches. The corporation continues to be a major corporate backer of the Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio, and ADM continues to do a rousing business. Despite all of Lieber's exhaustive documentation, the question remains: Was ADM simply practicing business as usual? Rats in the Grain reveals that a corporation as large as ADM is willing to absorb serious legal sanction as the cost of doing business. Whether it really changes its ways after those sanctions, Lieber suggests, remains to be seen.