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Finding peace

Q&A | Executive, whistleblower, thief: Mark Whitacre's three lives will soon be displayed in theaters nationwide, but the new, fourth life-turning to Christ-is the most important

Issue: "Profiles in effective compassion," Sept. 26, 2009

In 1983, at age 25, Mark Whitacre earned a Ph.D. in Nutritional Biochemistry from Cornell University. At age 32 he became president of the fastest-growing division within Archer Daniels Midland, one of the largest conglomerates in America. At age 40 he entered prison and became a Christian there. At age 49, in December 2006, he left prison.

Whitacre is best known publicly for his whistleblower role in the 1990s ADM price-fixing case, which ended with a $100 million fine for the company and prison for some top officials. ADM's 2005 annual report also lists a $400 million payment to settle a class action suit. But Whitacre, while secretly taping price-fixing discussions, was also stealing $9 million from ADM.

His saga of corruption and mania will receive new attention over the next several weeks as The Informant!, a movie starring Matt Damon as Mark Whitacre, hits theaters around the country. (See "Unfaithful telling," Sept. 18, 2009.) The film is a dark comedy that does not deal with Whitacre's conversion to Christ-and that's a remarkable story of how hard time created receptivity to God's good news. Whitacre told me that had he avoided prison or received only the six-month sentence that could have been his at one point, he would have remained merely a nominal churchgoer who worshipped financial success.

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Here's an edited transcript of our interview:

Q: Why did you join ADM in 1989? I was hyper-ambitious and almost over-compulsive. Career was everything to me. ADM made me the youngest divisional president in the history of that company.

Q: ADM turns corn into ethanol and hundreds of food products, right? If you go to the grocery store today you'll have a difficult time buying food that doesn't have something from ADM in it.

Q: You learned soon that the company was involved in price-fixing. Yes, but not in my division, at first.

Q: Why is price-fixing a problem? You think that sales people are out there competing, one company against another, but in reality upper management is making deals with competitors in order to drive the prices up. You're ripping off from consumers billions of dollars a year.

Q: Free markets work well because they're based on competition, and this was a way to eliminate competition. Exactly. It's deception, and it takes away the free market.

Q: Your personal venture into deception began in 1991 when you responded to one of those scamming letters from Nigeria. There wasn't even email then, it was by fax, and it was new. They made all these promises that we would make $20 million, $30 million, $50 million. Being hyper-ambitious, over-compulsive, I invested, along with a couple other vice presidents under me.

Q: When you lost $200,000, how did you respond? I wrote a check to myself from ADM.

Q: You submitted phony invoices? That's correct.

Q: As a divisional president you had check-writing authority. Yeah. I knew about the price-fixing which was a billion-dollar crime, so I sure wasn't worried about the company turning me in for a $200,000 crime.

Q: By 1992 your division was involved in the price-fixing, but you were having trouble with a big manufacturing plant and made up a story about sabotage. How could our competition be sabotaging our plant? We had all these price-fixing deals going on. They were our friends.

The FBI came to check out the sabotage claim. My wife Ginger asked, "Why are you so nervous about the FBI? Just tell them what's going on and it shouldn't be a big deal." And for the first time I told her, "There are things going on in the company that I've never told you about."

Q: When you told Ginger about the price-fixing, how did she respond? She said, "Gosh, that's wrong. That's ripping off every consumer out there." She put her foot down and said, "I'm going to tell the FBI what's going on."

The FBI agent came to our house. My wife stayed really close by to see if I was going to tell them everything. She said that if I didn't tell them, she was going to. I went along with what I was coached to say. The FBI agent was ready to leave the house. She stopped him and said there was a lot more to say than what I was telling them.

Q: Under pressure from Ginger, you confessed. I met for another four hours with the agent and told him everything that was going on in the company. I became the highest-level executive to turn whistleblower in U.S. history. It was because of my wife doing the right thing.

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