A suicide attempt by a key government informant could deal a severe blow to the U.S. Justice Department’s investigation of price fixing by Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. and other global agribusiness players.
Mark Whitacre, a former fast-rising top ADM executive who served for nearly three years as a government mole, tried to kill himself last week by inhaling exhaust fumes from his running car in his closed garage.
The 38-year-old Whitacre, who was hospitalized in Chicago, was apparently despondent over his recent firing by the company, charges that he stole $2.5 million from ADM, and growing questions about his truthfulness.
In a bizarre twist preceding his suicide attempt, Whitacre sent a letter to the Wall Street Journal that appeared to acknowledge he had obtained money from the company through improper means. The Journal first reported Whitacre’s role as an informant.
“Regarding overseas accounts and kick-backs; and overseas payments to some employees,” he wrote the Journal, which disclosed the suicide attempt in Monday’s editions. “Dig deep. It’s there! They give it, then use it against you when you are their enemy.”
Whitacre and his attorney, James Epstein, did not return phone calls. ADM, which denies any wrongdoing, declined to comment.
A Justice Department spokeswoman in Washington would only confirm that the agency was conducting an international antitrust probe of food additive concerns. Evidence is being presented to a federal grand jury in Chicago.
ADM is also part of an unrelated probe of price-fixing of liquid carbon dioxide. The company, which is a small producer of the product, agreed to pay $1.4 million last year to settle civil claims made by customers.
Whitacre is a central figure in what is one of the government’s biggest, most politically sensitive antitrust investigations ever. As a highly placed company insider, he helped authorities record and videotape conversations and meetings in which price strategies allegedly were discussed by top agribusiness officials in hotels around the globe.
As head of the company’s fast-growing bioproducts division, Whitacre was known as a wonder boy who had risen rapidly and was considered a potential candidate to become the ADM president.
But that was before June 27, when a posse of federal authorities swooped into Decatur, Ill., where the company is headquartered, and served the company and several top officials with subpoenas for documents. The government has also sought documents from Cargill Inc., A. E. Staley Manufacturing Co. and CPC International Inc.
The investigation centers on allegations that the companies conspired to fix prices of citric acid, high-fructose corn syrup and lysine. Citric acid and corn syrup are used by food processors to enhance and sweeten their products. Lysine is a livestock feed additive used to build up lean muscles in hogs and poultry.
In an interview with Fortune magazine, Whitacre said he became a government informant after ADM Chairman Dwayne O. Andreas summoned a friend in the FBI to look into lysine contamination in 1992. Andreas suspected the problem was the work of a saboteur hired by a foreign rival.
When the agent questioned company executives, Whitacre told him about alleged price-fixing between ADM and its competitors. FBI officials told him he could stay with the company and break the law, or leave.
“Then they said there was a third alternative,” he told Fortune. “You could work with us and try to stop this stuff, which is actually a very serious crime.”
Whitacre said the FBI has surveillance tapes on which Michael D. Andreas, ADM vice chairman and Dwayne Andreas’ son, quotes his father as saying, “The competitor is our friend, the customer is our enemy.”
Whitacre has complained that his life has become tremendously stressful since it was revealed that he lived a double life as company executive and government informant. Questions about his background have arisen, and he says his family has been taunted.
His despondency grew when the company alleged on Aug. 7 that he had stolen $2.5 million, Whitacre’s wife told the Journal. ADM has turned information over to the Justice Department, which said it has begun a preliminary investigation.
For his willingness to cooperate with federal investigators, Whitacre has been granted immunity from prosecution. But that agreement could be voided if he engaged in any criminal conduct without the FBI’s knowledge and approval.
Antitrust lawyers said Whitacre’s legal and medical problems could make it much more difficult for the government to prove its case.
If the government chooses not to use Whitacre as a witness, it will have to rely heavily on taped conversations, which could be open to interpretation. If Whitacre testifies but is implicated in wrongdoing, his motivation for helping the government could be more easily challenged.