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Anyone who reads "The Informant," a gripping book by New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald about the Archer Daniels Midland price-fixing scandal, will never again be able to sit through those grandiose "Supermarket to the World" TV spots without guffawing. Because Eichenwald managed to get his hands on long-secret FBI tapes, as well as grand jury testimony, we come face to face with the criminal culture prevailing in the ADM boardroom in all its graphic detail.

The question that reverberates when you put down the book is: How can the Andreas family, which rules ADM, remain such a big-time player in Washington, contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars to both parties and sponsoring, to the tune of millions of dollars, such television and radio programs as "Meet the Press," "This Week," "The Jim Lehrer News Hour" and NPR's "All Things Considered"?

And that money is not for nothing -- it's one of the reasons why you didn't hear much about the scandal or how, just last Friday, Judge Blanche Manning, under orders from the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, increased the sentence of Michael Andreas (son of Dwayne and ADM's former vice chairman of the board) to three years. In July of last year, Andreas and ADM cohort Terrance Wilson were sentenced to two years for their role in the consumer-gouging scheme -- in which, according to one of the federal judges who heard their appeal, the company "fabricated aliases .. . . hired prostitutes to gather information from competitors, lied, cheated, embezzled, extorted and obstructed justice."

Despite all this -- much secretly captured on tape by the FBI -- Manning originally gave the men a sentence lower than federal guidelines called for. As Eichenwald told me, "If you rob a grocery store, you get six years. If you rip off every grocery store in the country, you get a maximum of three."

The judge went so far as to praise Andreas and Wilson as philanthropists, community leaders and wonderful family men. In fact, "The Informant" is rife with examples of the vile locker-room mentality of the men running ADM. Michael Andreas, in particular, comes across as a sleazeball, regularly offering his opinions on both the physical endowments and sexual skills of female employees. Family at its finest, Your Honor.

But much more significant is the ADM executives' jaundiced approach to the body politic -- what is portrayed in Eichenwald's book as the "nonchalant attitude inside ADM about law-breaking, whether on price fixing or campaign finance." Eichenwald said, "The top guys are ordering their underlings to commit felonies, and they are doing it while laughing, joking about girls and playing golf."

Like most modern-day corporate citizens, the Andreases are political "swingers" -- hedging their bets by giving across the ideological spectrum. In years past, they've been among the top contributors to both parties. According to Federal Election Commission reports through July, so far this election cycle they've given $478,500 to Republicans and $272,500 to Democrats, with the money going to politicians as diverse as Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. When you have a supermarket to run, you don't have time for political consistency.

But the pay-off has been huge -- federal protection of the sugar industry and ongoing ethanol subsidies have translated into billions of dollars for ADM. According to a 1995 study by the Cato Institute, "at least 43 percent of ADM's annual profits are from products heavily subsidized or protected by the American government."

Nor is there any indication that the Andreases' political influence will wane just because of a couple of felony convictions and a truckload of damning tapes. After all, price-fixing charges and ADM have gone together since 1978, when the company pleaded no contest to fixing prices on contracts in the Food for Peace program.

In November 1.4 million African-American men will be ineligible to vote because of felony convictions. So will Michael Andreas. But, unlike them, he and ADM will be able to continue participating in the political process in the way that has come to count more than voting: buying public policy. The supermarket stays open.

Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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