Some of the sagest advice my father ever offered my brothers and me urged us not to “hit back at bullies” because, sooner or later, “they’ll get theirs.”
The wisdom of that tenet has often proven accurate — most recently in the reversal of fortunes for two key players in the late-1990s price-fixing drama at Archers Daniels Midland.
Recall that ADM superstar Mark Whitacre worked as an FBI mole to gather evidence that led the company to admit price fixing in global food and feed markets. ADM paid a $100 million criminal fine and two of its key executives, Michael Andreas and Terrance Wilson, along with Whitacre, went to prison for their roles in the scandal.
Whitacre, however, got the book thrown at him when FBI handlers learned he had received $11 million in unreported “bonuses” from ADM. While he insisted — and still insists — the cash came through a secret ADM scheme to reward top executives, he took a plea (on 37 counts of wire, mail and tax fraud) in 1998 to end his ordeal and protect his family from further prosecution. The story of corporate intrigue and an FBI mole was pure gold because it also featured a politically connected business titan, Dwayne O. Andreas. Soon, reporters from around the nation were covering it like skin.
One early bigfoot to arrive was Kurt Eichenwald, an investigative reporter for the New York Times. Eichenwald’s bare-knuckle style, however, quickly left scars on fellow reporters, shared sources and civility. But, man, did he get the scoops.
Indeed, his stories were so stop-the-presses sensational that most of us wondered how he found needles in the haystack every time he looked — many that he then stuck into Whitacre.
In 2000, his book on the ADM scandal, “The Informant,” revealed some of his secrets. The biggest was that he used information he claimed was only available to him. It led him to paint Whitacre a delusional embezzler while portraying ADM boss Dwayne Andreas a patriotic father figure. Neither picture was remotely accurate.
The book’s bigger problems were its factual errors (they were numerous) and the fly-on-the-wall license Eichenwald used to recreate scenes and dialogue. All, he explained in his “Author’s Note,” were based on either “confidential,” “secret” or “publicly unavailable” information only he had had access to. In short, the message was “Only I know the truth.” I thought it bullying baloney when I reviewed the book in October 2000 and I still think it’s bullying baloney.
Fast forward five years.
After more high profile Times stories and a best-selling book on the Enron scandal, Eichenwald, in late 2005, authored a sensational Times series on web-based child pornography. It rocked Congress, landed him on “Oprah” and sent people to prison.
Shortly after that achievement, though, Eichenwald left the Times and, in September 2006, joined a start-up business magazine called Portfolio.
That gig ended Aug. 10 when he resigned after the Times reported he may have paid $1,100 — under an assumed name — to the key source in his 2005 child pornography series.
The revelation came on top of Eichenwald having earlier admitted he paid the same source, Justin Berry, $2,000 in 2005 before he wrote the series that featured Berry, for the Times. (Berry, Eichenwald said, repaid the cash.)
Contrast Eichenwald’s recent fall with Whitacre’s recent climb.
Released from prison in December 2006 after serving nearly nine years, Whitacre, in June 2007, became chief operating officer of Cypress Systems, a California-based biotech company researching cancer cures. “It’s the perfect job,” he related in an Aug. 14 telephone interview.
When asked of Eichenwald’s current plight, Whitacre’s only comment is: “That’s strange, isn’t it?”
Gee, Dad was right again.
Alan Guebert’s “Farm and Food File” is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.