Opinion

May 8, 2013

Mark Millican: ‘Divorce was never an option, murder was’

Imagine “wearing a wire” to work for a day and recording every business interaction with your superiors and colleagues, including all the phone conversations and social chatter.

Now think of doing it every workday for three straight years.

It’s exactly what Mark Whitacre went through as an FBI informant against his former company, Archer Daniels Midland, a huge food conglomerate that provided the setting for an international price-fixing scheme pulled off by Whitacre and three other top ADM executives.

Whitacre spoke at the Chattanooga Area Leadership Prayer Breakfast last week, and laid out for several hundred attendees how he came to serve almost nine years in prison even after becoming the highest-ranking executive of any Fortune 500 company to become a whistleblower in U.S. history, according to his testimony. A movie, “The Informant” with Matt Damon playing Whitacre, is about the ADM scandal.

To get an idea what the company does, Whitacre told attendees, look at what you just had for breakfast — and probably what you’ll have for lunch — and it will have something from ADM in it.

With an Ivy League Ph.D. under his belt, Whitacre became president of the fledgling bioproducts division at ADM, the youngest divisional president in the history of the company at age 32 — and along with it came a seven-figure income. He achieved corporate vice president status at ADM three years later and was on the fast-track to becoming the next company president.

By price-fixing with other multinational companies, the four execs at ADM were stealing hundreds of millions of dollars — some calculated it was billions — from consumers around the world. Whitacre’s wife, Ginger, had noticed some profound changes in her husband.

“She sat down with me and said, ‘Mark, you’re not the person I fell in love with in high school,’” he began. “She said, ‘What’s going on in your life? It seems like your whole focus (is) the title, the company planes, your job. You’re working 100-hour weeks, we have three children here at home and it seems like you’re disconnected from the family and the community, and all you can think about is moving up the corporate ladder and making more money and buying more things. You have no peace in your life.’”

Whitacre said he revealed and explained the price-fixing he was involved in, and Ginger responded by telling him he had to go to the FBI, expose the fraud and turn himself in. He told her he could go to prison and they could lose their home, all the cars, the stock — everything they had.

“She said she’d rather be homeless than live in a house where illegal activity was occurring,” Whitacre relayed. “She said if I didn’t turn myself in to the FBI, she would.”

So began the arduous process of meeting FBI agents every weekday morning at 6 a.m. and getting “wired.” There were also recording devices in his briefcase and notebook, and he debriefed the agents for hours every night after work. But in his paranoia about his fellow executives finding out and ADM firing him for blowing the whistle — meaning he could lose millions of dollars in benefits accrued — Whitacre attempted to defraud the company for the amount of his future severance, $9 million. But when ADM did learn about Whitacre’s whistle-blowing activity and the fraud scheme, they turned him in to the FBI for fraud.

When it all came crashing down, federal prosecutors offered Whitacre a six-month sentence “in the prison the Watergate guys went to,” after FBI agents advocated for him.

But in his arrogance he turned it down.

“My wife begged me to sign it,” he said. “In (later) interviews one of the most common things she said was this, ‘Divorce was never an option — but murder was,’ and she considered it twice.”

Speaking of Watergate, the late Chuck Colson — self-described as one of President Nixon’s “hatchet men” who went to prison two decades earlier and wrote a book about his experiences called “Born Again” — began to mentor Whitacre in just his second week in prison, Whitacre said. (He alluded to the fact that Colson was the speaker at the very first Chattanooga prayer breakfast 35 years ago.) Ginger moved the family to be closer to Mark, and they visited every time it was possible during his eight-year, eight-month sentence.

Whitacre told the crowd it was true that “greed blinds you,” and he remembers telling Colson his sin of ripping off untold millions of people was “too big — God can’t forgive me.” To make a long story short, Whitacre confessed to his misdeeds and believes he is forgiven. Now he tours the country talking about leadership, his own experience with corporate greed and doing business the right way.

One simple verse of Scripture spoke to his heart, he said. And if an individual ever decided to memorize just one verse from the Bible, this would be a good one: 1 John 1:9.

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