For those unfamiliar with his story, Mark Whitacre is the American businessman and former president of the BioProducts division of Archer Daniel Midland (ADM) who hit the headlines in 1995 after becoming the highest-level corporate executive in history to become an FBI whistle-blower. Between 1992 and 1995, Whitacre acted as an informant to the FBI during their investigation into an ADM price- fixing scandal. Whitacre’s involvement in the investigation began after he volunteered information to the FBI on ADM’s connection to a multinational lysine price-fixing scheme. Courageous though it was, Whitacre’s decision to part with the information was not entirely of his own volition – after finding out about her husband’s shady dealings, Whitacre’s wife, Ginger, gave him an ultimatum: go to the FBI himself, or she would do it for him. “Ginger forced my hand. She decided firmly that she would tell the FBI what she knew, even if I couldn’t,” Whitacre revealed “She was the sole reason I opened up to the FBI that night. Ginger is the real whistleblower of this case, not I.”
Whitacre’s decision to blow the whistle on ADM’s illegal activities would see him spend the next three years working hand-in-hand with the FBI in securing the information necessary to complete their investigations. The wired- up whistleblower secretly recorded conversations between ADM executives and the company’s competitors, gathering all the evidence needed to indict those involved (and, as it would transpire, himself). The investigation would end with ADM facing federal charges of over $100 million and forced to repay many millions more to the injured parties. For Whitacre, the story was just beginning….
Prior to his involvement in the price-fixing investigation, Whitacre was one of ADM’s rising stars. As the head of one of the company’s fastest growing divisions, the young businessman seemed all set to take the company’s helm after the retirement of then president, James Randall. That all changed when in 1995, Whitacre was given his marching orders from ADM after being accused of defrauding the company of at least $2.5 million while he was acting on behalf of the FBI.
Naturally enough, Whitacre fervently denied the allegations (which, coincidentally enough, came just 6 weeks after his involvement in the price-fixing investigation came to light). Inside sources, meanwhile, suggested there may have been some truth to the allegations, even if things weren’t quite as clear cut as ADM were suggesting. As one source told CNN, the $2.5 million was in fact an agreed upon part of Whitacre’s remuneration… the only real problem lay with the way the company had paid up. Rather than include the money in Whitacre’s salary, ADM chose instead to divert it to outside suppliers, then funnel it into foreign bank accounts. According to the friend, Whitacre had ‘fessed up about the overseas payments to the FBI while the prize-fixing investigation was still ongoing.
Afraid of arousing suspicion and putting their investigation at risk, the FBI supposedly told Whitacre to continue to accept the payments… a recommendation they seemed to have forgotten all about by 1997, the year in which Whitacre was found guilty of wire fraud, money laundering, conspiracy to defraud the IRS, filing false income tax returns, and, if that wasn’t enough, interstate transportation of stolen property.
By the time of his court case, Whitacre had given up his insistence of innocence. During his hearing in front of US District Court Judge Harold Baker, Whitacre entered pleas of guilty to all charges, admitting to taking ADM for almost $9 million through an intricate scheme involving imaginary companies, fake invoices and a network of overseas bank accounts. On March 4, 1998, Whitacre was sentenced to 10 and a half years in Federal prison. He would ultimately end up serving 8 and a half years, earning an early release for good behavior in December 2006. According to Whitacre, the most valuable lesson he learnt in prison was the value of family. “I learned my family was the most important thing in my life,” he shared with Fortune. My wife moved to every state I was located and came every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday for eight and a half years. I’m very lucky, and she’s really what kept me alive. My wife, she’s definitely a trooper.”
A Changed Man
Prison clearly gave Whitacre ample time to reflect on the decisions and actions that had led to his incarceration. By the time of his release, he was a changed man, and able to take full responsibly for his shady past. “I had a sense of entitlement and felt like anything I took was mine; the company owed it to me because I worked hard enough. I thought I was bulletproof — being able to stay at the company, be made the CEO. That’s delusional. I mean… I obviously had some serious issues that I had to deal with”, he explained to Fortune.
While many convicts have a hard time finding a job after serving time, Mark Whitacre faced no such problem. Fresh from prison in December 2006, Whitacre was hired by biotech company, Cypress Systems Inc. The company was clearly not deterred by Whitacre’s past, appointing the ex-con the prime position of President of Technology and Business Development. Whitacre’s first few years at the company clearly impressed his new employers, as in March 2000, he was promoted to COO and President of Operations. The main focus of the company is medical research (and in particular, cancer prevention, AIDs/HIV, childhood malnutrition and autism)- a worthy endeavor that stands in stark contrast to Whitacre’s past as a money-hungry executive. Whitacre himself is all too aware of the turnaround and credits the change in his motivation to his time in prison. “I most certainly lost my way when I was at ADM in my early and mid-30s, and I lost my moral compass,” Whitacre explained. “I had plenty of time to reflect while in federal prison for eight and a half years from age 41 to age 49.”
Finding the Faith
In addition to his daily 9-5 with Cypress, Whitacre serves as a speaker on ethics at cooperate events (notable examples include a talk on second chances at the Quantico FBI Academy in 2011, and serving as keynote speaker at the 40th Annual NAPSA Conference in 2012 along with Robert F. Kennedy Jr). Whitacre also acts as the spokesperson and COO for CBMC (Christian Business Men’s Connection), a Christian- centric organization that aims to bridge the gap between faith and business. Whitacre, a born-again Christian, found his own faith while in prison, thanks largely to the friendship he developed with Chuck Colson, the White House Council who served time in the 1970’s for his part in the Watergate Scandal. Colson’s ministry planted the seed of Whitacre’s faith, and would lead him to follow his mentor’s example by becoming a counselor to other inmates, a vocation he describes as one of the most rewarding of his life:- “Discipling these guys, helping them get their GEDs, learn how to read, learn how to write, I’ll tell you, it was the first time in my life that I was helping someone besides myself,” he shared with Truth at Work. “And I found how rewarding it was to be a servant leader instead of a selfish leader, and how rewarding it was to help see these people improve their lives.”
One of the key achievements of Whitacre’s post- prison life has been raising awareness of mental illness. Whitacre, who now counsels’ inmates with psychiatric disorders, has suggested many of the decisions he made in the past were the result of untreated bipolar disorder. “Only a person with untreated bipolar disorder would have done some of the things I did,” he explained during a speech at the International Bipolar Foundation. “Working undercover against a corporation while working for it had taken my manic behavior to a whole new level.” Whitacre’s battle with the condition was finally recognized after a suicide attempt led to his hospitalization and eventual diagnosis.
A Sympathetic Figure
In 2000, former New York Times journalist Kurt Eichenwald helped turn the tide of public opinion on Whitacre with The Informant, an account of Whitacre’s involvement in the case against ADM that portrays the whistleblower as a complex, sympathetic figure. According to Eichenwald, Whitacre’s initial motivation for his embezzlement of ADM was the financial losses he’d suffered as the victim of an advance fee scam. Eichenwald goes on to suggest that Whitacre’s bizarre behavior (such as trying to emulate Mitch McDeere, the hero of the movie “The Firm”, by hitting the FBI up for money- albeit with far less success than McDeere) and his delusional lies to the media (including claiming the FBI tried to get him to destroy evidence- a statement he later recanted) were symptoms of his as then undiagnosed bi-polar disorder.
According to Eichenwald, the sentence Whitacre ultimately received failed to consider his mental illness and was thus unjustly served. In a 2000 radio interview on This American Life (which saw Eichenwald joined by an FBI agent, two prosecutors and Whitacre himself) Eichenwald claimed Whitacre’s sentence was “excessive and a law enforcement failure,” not only because of its disregard for the businessman’s mental state, but because it failed to take into account the significance of his role in bringing ADM to justice.
Immortalized on Film
In September 2009, Whitacre was immortalized on film when Warner Bros released The Informant! The Steven Soderbergh directed comedy/ drama (which was based on Kurt Eichenwald’s book of the same name) saw Matt Damon take the part of a pre-indicted Whitacre. The feature centers on some of the bizarre behaviors (such as his decision to clear his driveway of leaves during a thunderstorm at 3am in the morning, while wearing only a shirt and tie and no umbrella) that undercut Whitacre’s dicey decisions and would eventually lead to his bipolar diagnosis.
Praying For A Pardon
Since his release from prison, Whitacre has been joined by a legion of supporters in calling for a presidential pardon. The campaign was initiated by a group of loyal factions in the FBI and Department of Justice, including Dean Paisley, an FBI agent involved in the original investigation into ADM, 2 other FBI agents, 2 prosecutors from the Canadian Department of Justice, several member of Congress and Senate, a former Attorney General of the United States, a former Assistant US Attorney who was involved in Whitacre’s prosecution, and numerous corporate executives. His employers at Cypress have also lent their full support to the campaign, with the company’s CEO and president Paul Willis going so far as to write a personal letter of recommendation to President Trump:- “Mark Whitacre deserves and warrants a full Presidential pardon to acknowledge his personal and family’s contribution to the historic wrong doing in the ADM federal price fixing case, and their current efforts to motivate others to live lives of significance,” he wrote.
A Raw Deal
While Whitacre is the first to admit he made a mistake, he claims the price he ultimately paid was disproportionate to the crime… something that’s perhaps understandable when you consider the longest jail time any ADM executive served for their part in the original price- fixing scandal was just 30 months (a pittance compared to Whitacre ’s 8.5 years). The FBI agents involved in the investigation into Whitacre have gone on record to support the whistle-blower, stating the crimes he committed were minuscule in comparison to those of ADM. They’ve also been quick to praise his integral role in the investigation and eventual conviction of ADM, with FBI agent Dean Paisley noting “Without him, the biggest antitrust case we’ve ever had would not have been.”
In the years since it started, Whitacre’s plea for clemency has gained significant momentum, with more and more supporters coming on board to highlight both his integral role in the ADM case, and the unjustness of his subsequent conviction. In 2010, the Discovery Channel documentary, Undercover: Operation Harvest King, saw a number of FBI agents acknowledging that “Whitacre got a raw deal.” Whitacre himself clearly agrees, telling Forbes, “I take responsibility for what I did, but I can say that I paid a tremendous price as well. I’m not looking for forgiveness… I am looking to show people who have fallen short, as I have, that there is an opportunity to turn one’s life around.” Whether or not the President concurs, only time will tell.