Mark Whitacre spent three years working undercover to put a ring of thieves behind bars. He then spent nearly nine years in prison for stealing from the very thieves he helped convict.
In his March 18 presentation, “When Good Leaders Lose Their Way,” Whitacre spoke to a group of about 50 students and professionals in the University Commons Conference Room about how it all happened and what others could learn from his experiences.
“I came to a fork in the road at age 32, and I made the wrong decision,” he said to the audience. “This is going to be a story of what not to do.”
In the early ‘90s, Whitacre was an executive at Archer Daniels Midland, a food distribution company that specializes in raw ingredients such as sweeteners, grains and oils.
Whitacre said that shortly after joining the company, he learned that many of the senior executives were price-fixing, or illegally partnering with other companies to drive up the prices of goods and services.
Before long, Whitacre was drawn into the price-fixing scam. He said he convinced himself that it was OK because no one else seemed to think it was wrong.
“The path I was taking was rationalizing,” he said. “Fraudsters can’t look themselves in the mirror and admit they do fraud. They rationalize it to themselves.”
Whitacre said he had known about the price fixing for about seven months when FBI agents arrived at ADM offices.
Ironically, the agents were there to help the company with a security issue, not investigate any wrongdoing. However, their presence made Whitacre anxious, so he discussed the situation with his wife, Ginger.
Within an hour she convinced him to contact the FBI agents and confess.
Whitacre said the agents agreed not to prosecute him if he helped them build a case against the other executives, so from 1992 until 1995, he lived a double life as an FBI informant.
Before work, Whitacre would visit his FBI handlers so they could outfit him with hidden tape recorders and then go to ADM and conduct business as usual.
A few times a week, he would meet the agents after work and give them the tapes that would eventually be used to prosecute his friends and co-workers.
“I had two jobs,” he said in the presentation. “I would build the company up by day and tear it down at night.”
Whitacre said the stress of the situation took a heavy toll on him mentally, but through it all, his main motivation was greed. He imagined that after the FBI cleaned house, he would continue his ascent up the company ladder and eventually become the president of ADM.
He had been wearing the wire for two years when a conversation with Ginger helped him realize that he had no future with the company once he was revealed to be a whistle-blower.
Whitacre said he began to wonder if anyone would ever hire him again and how he would pay for his expensive home and cars. He said he then decided that since everyone else at ADM was stealing, he should just take the money he needed.
Whitacre began sending fake invoices to ADM, and then writing checks to cover the invoices and cashing them himself.
He said he eventually stole the equivalent of three years’ salary, $9 million.
“I thought that would get me back on my feet, and I would be able to live at the same standard of living that I felt like I deserved,” he said in his presentation.
Whitacre said that decision ultimately derailed his life. His thefts were discovered during the price-fixing trial, and he lost his immunity from prosecution. Whitacre spent eight years and eight months in federal prisons, including a stint at Saufley Field in Pensacola.
Whitacre said that his family stayed by his side throughout his entire prison sentence, and their understanding helped him realize there is more to life than material things.
“It’s amazing they’ve forgiven me,” he said. “It took me going to prison to really listen and get to know them.”
Since being released from prison in 2006, Whitacre has become the chief operating officer and president of operations for Cypress Systems, a biotechnology company in California. His experiences wearing the wire were the subject of the 2009 film, “The Informant,” starring Matt Damon as Whitacre.
Whitacre said that he is using his freedom to teach ethics and social responsibility in the business world.
“My objective is that you leave here today with more passion than you’ve ever had in your life to do the right thing,” Whitacre said to the crowd.
Whitacre’s visit was sponsored by the College of Business, and many business students were on hand to hear his message.
Kenny Gray, a junior pursuing a B.S.B.A in management, said he got the message loud and clear.
“Always make the right decision, or it can cost you a lot more than you think,” Gray said.