When Mark Whitacre was offered a plea deal in the theft of $9 million, it was the offer of a lifetime, his lawyer told him.
Under the agreement, he would serve three years in jail, with the possibility of getting that amount reduced to six months. Whitacre, ignoring the advice of his wife and lawyer, turned the deal down, and instead hired a new team of lawyers to fight the charges.
In the end, Whitacre was sentenced to more than 10 years in federal prison.
Turning down the plea deal — as foolish as that choice was at the time — is what led to Whitacre turning his life around, he told the audience at the 27th annual Greenwood Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast on Saturday morning at The Gathering Place.
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“I became a free man in prison.” Whitacre said. “I was imprisoned to that life of greed.”
Whitacre’s message to the audience: Adversity is inevitable, and when it comes, you can either get better or you can get bitter.
The mayor’s prayer breakfast is an annual event sponsored by the Christian Business Men’s Connection, a collection of business leaders who aim to spread Christian values in the community.
As one of the top four executives of a Fortune 500 company, Whitacre made several million dollars a year, had his own corporate jet, a mansion and every type of luxury car.
“Boy, did I think I was a rock star,” Whitacre said.
The problem: Much of the money Archer Daniels Midland, a food processing company, was making was being earned illicitly. The company was engaged in an international price-fixing scheme to artificially raise the prices of ingredients used in food and beverages across the U.S. The company was stealing from everyone who bought groceries, he said.
“Greed blinds you,” Whitacre said.
When Whitacre was brought into the price fixing scheme, it was his wife, Ginger, who noticed the changes in his life. He worked longer hours, often staying on the phone late into the evening after he returned home from work, rarely spending time with his wife or kids.
She confronted him about the changes, and he told her about the illegal activities he was engaged in.
His wife offered him two choices: turn himself in to the FBI or she would do it herself. Ginger told her husband that she would rather be homeless than live a lifestyle paid for by crime.
The following day, Whitacre was in an FBI office, providing details of the $1 billion price fixing scheme. His wife thought that confession would resolve the situation, but the most challenging part was still to come.
The FBI offered Whitacre two choices: Go to jail or become an informant and receive immunity from any charges.
For the next three years Whitacre would go to work every day with hidden tape recorders. The information he gathered led to charges being brought against the top three executives of the company.
Whitacre doesn’t want to be called a hero for what he did, saying his wife, who forced him to go to the FBI, was the real hero.
“A whistleblower is someone who sacrifices everything to do the right thing, as my wife did,” Whitacre said. “An informant is someone who starts wearing a wire for three years to get less punishment.”
It was after two years of working as an informant when Whitacre made his biggest mistake. Worried that he would no longer be able to continue living his extravagant lifestyle once his role as the informant was revealed, he stole $9 million from the company, writing five checks to himself that he described as his own golden parachute.
As soon as charges against company executives were announced, they turned on Whitacre, releasing details of how he had stolen from the company as well.
“I was my very own worst enemy,” he said.
The FBI revoked Whitacre’s immunity and he served time in prison just like the other company executives.
“We deserved the punishment that we got,” Whitacre said.
Had he received the lighter sentence he would have gotten with his plea deal, he likely would have left prison as the same man who had entered it, he said.
If anyone had asked him if he was a Christian prior to going to prison, the answer would have been: “Yes, I got to church every Sunday,” Whitacre said.
During the months before he went to prison, Whitacre met Ian Howes, who was part of a group called the Christian Business Men’s Connection. It was through Howes, that Whitacre learned that being a Christian was much more than the routine steps he had been taking all his life.
After several months in prison, he confessed his sins and recommitted his life to Jesus, Whitacre said.
“I turned my life over to Jesus after having gone to church my whole life,” he said.
He described the years he spent in prison as the most productive of his life as he worked to mentor dozens of other men.
It was also during his time in prison that he was able to reconnect with his family. He had never made time for them during his hectic employment, but they now visited him as often as they could. The fact that his wife stayed with him, when nearly all marriages end during a more than five-year imprisonment, is a miracle from God, Whitacre said.
“The only hero is my wife Ginger,” he said.