A TRUE STORY
Is there any more captivating, loved or inspiring story than of someone that works their way up from humble origins to the top of their profession, achieving more than they ever imagined? The monomythic “Horatio Alger” type story? A true story that lifts the vision of others to what can be accomplished in life—no matter what station in life you come from?
… when that same person, through bad choices, bad luck or flawed character comes crashing down. Flames out. Loses everything. Now that’s a story that captivates and inspires—in a negative way. For that story, we crave all the sordid details. How could anyone in their right mind do something like that? Risk everything? Were they nuts? We zero in with smug self-righteousness, confident that it could never happen to us.
Yes, the crash and burn story is much more powerful and alluring. We love it more than the first type of story because it exposes the flaws of human nature. Other people’s flaws that is. We love that scandalous-type story more than anything …
… when that self-same person, after being drug into the pits of a living hell, losing everything, picks themselves up, dusts themselves off, accepts responsibility for their actions and … a miracle happens. They overcome. They start winning again, against almost insurmountable odds.
THE SUBLIME BEAUTY OF A SECOND CHANCE
I know this person. We grew up together. Went to Junior and High School together. Hung out together. Got in trouble together. I remember when he met his future wife of 30+ years – in the 8th grade. We recently connected after many years traveling radically different roads in life. At a high school reunion no less. After too many glasses of wine, we both affirmed our love of life’s trials and the great hopes for the future. And then, he quite possibly said one of the funniest things I’ve heard in a long time.
Him: You’ve kept in great shape.
Me: Thanks. Hard to do at our age.
Him: I’ve been in prison for the last 10 years … what’s your excuse?
MAKING A MILLION DOLLARS A YEAR
He was 32 years old, earning $1,000,000 per year and was third in line to take over leadership of a $70 billion company. He flew all over the world in corporate jets, lived overseas and spoke multiple languages. A brilliant scientist, he started a biotechnology division for this company in 18 months (it should have took 5-7 years) and had it positioned to capture a global marketshare of the product Lysine. Much better, faster and cheaper than any of the competitors at the time.
The world was at his feet.
TWELVE CENTS AN HOUR
Six years later he was making 12 cents an hour—in prison. Sitting in a barren cell on a steel-frame bed, no mattress or blankets and with nothing on but his boxers—waiting to be shivved. Sliced. Diced. Killed.
He was a corporate whistle-blower—an informant for the FBI. Not just any whistle-blower though. He was …
Dr. Mark Whitacre, AKA “The Informant,” came from a little town called Morrow, Ohio. He worked hard to earn an Ivy League Ph.D. in Nutritional Biochemistry from Cornell University and B.S. and Master’s degrees from Ohio State University. He also holds two law degrees (J.D. and LL.M). Nowhere in his worst nightmare did he ever think he’d become best known as the highest-level executive of a Fortune 500 company to become a whistle-blower in US history. After blowing the whistle in 1992, Mark worked undercover with the FBI for three years wearing a wire every day in one of the largest price-fixing cases in history.
The FBI rarely leaves any agent undercover for more than a year because of the immense psychological pressures. And those are trained agents. Mark was never trained. But, his three years of undercover work revealed approximately $100 million a month being scammed from consumers because of price-fixing.
It came with a price—a complete mental and psychological meltdown. Mark went to federal prison for eight and a half years for a white-collar crime that occurred during his undercover tenure. He embezzled 9.5 million dollars from Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), his employer at the time. This story has been covered extensively in several books like Rats in the Grain by James Lieber, The Informant by Kurt Eichenwald, a former New York Times reporter, and a Discovery Channel documentary called “Undercover.” But the real story is just coming to light.
END OF STORY?
It should have been the end of the Dr. Mark Whitacre saga.
Prison ruins marriages and families. About 90% of all marriages end in divorce of inmates after three years. But Mark’s wife Ginger, his sweetheart since Little Miami Junior High, was the Rock of Gibraltar. She visited him every time she could and held the family together in his absence and through many moves.
Prison ruins future job prospects. As much as we talk about “paying your dues” to society, those dues never end for most ex-cons. Convicted felons face almost insurmountable odds finding a job, even if you’re highly educated like Mark.
Should have been the end of his story. But it wasn’t. No, something happened in April 2001 at the Federal Prison Camp in Edgefield, South Carolina that changed everything. At that time, Mark still had five and a half years left to serve on his prison sentence.
A man came to see him. A wise and caring man. Someone he had never met or heard of. Paul A. Willis was the CEO and founder of Cypress Systems Research. He had tracked Mark down because of his expertise in Selenium (Cypress specializes in cancer research using Selenium). When Paul first met Mark, Ginger was at his side, as always. He says he knew the very first moment he met Mark that he was the right man for him—and his company. Mainly because Mark completely accepted responsibility for his actions, had made almost full restitution (which with interest and penalties was $11 million dollars) and had committed himself to a better life of helping people and sharing his story with others so they wouldn’t make the same mistakes.
Paul Willis believes that when people face failure, they have two choices:
“Get Better or Get Bitter”
Failure is a much better teacher than success. It engenders humility. Humility engenders introspection. Introspection leads to a self-aware truth—whether you accept it or not. Mark and Ginger had plenty of reasons to be mad at the world. But they weren’t. They could have been mad at the betrayal of the judicial system to them. The excessively harsh sentence compared to the other defendants. They had accepted it and were looking toward the future.
Paul Willis liked what he saw in Mark. Five and a half years later, exactly 24 hours after Mark Whitacre walked out of prison, Paul Willis hired him into his Executive Management team at Cypress Systems.
THE SUBLIME GRACE AND GREATNESS OF A SECOND CHANCE
Two years later, Mark was promoted to COO (Chief Operating Officer) and President leading cancer research.
Paul A. Willis stated that,
“By having Mark Whitacre as a part of the management team, we have taken a significant step in our effort to expand our selenium-based, cancer-prevention research and to develop next-generation products. Dr. Whitacre’s research and top-management business experience has fully aligned with the future direction of the company and its continued expansion into fermentation technology with emphasis on biotechnology and life-science applications. In the fifteen months since Dr. Whitacre joined the company, he has proven to be a valuable part of the management team.”
Dr Mark Whitacre now spends his time sharing lessons learned to help others. He is probably the only person the FBI ever sent to jail for almost a decade that actually came back and apologized to them for his behavior. And … just several weeks ago, he spoke at The FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia about his undercover experiences.
Most remarkable? He was able to keep his marriage to Ginger and family completely intact.
THE DECISION TO BE A WHISTLE-BLOWER
We talked on my radio show about his decision to be a whistle-blower. How it came about.
“In all honestly, the reason this case happened is because of my wife Ginger and the FBI agents.
“It had very little to do with me. I was a person stuck in the middle of something I had no interest in doing. In hindsight, I wish that I could have come forward and helped the FBI for all the right reasons, but at the time, I simply could not.”
“I became a whistle-blower and an informant because Ginger insisted I come forward and report what I knew. She didn’t understand exactly why price-fixing was illegal; she just intuitively knew it was very wrong. In November 1992, almost two decades ago, two hours before FBI-agent Brian Shepard first visited my home, Ginger forced my hand. She decided firmly that she would tell Brian what she knew, even if I couldn’t. She was the sole reason I opened up to the FBI that night.
“Ginger is the real whistle-blower of this case, not I. If anyone, then she is a national hero.
“Had I simply learned from her bravery and honesty, the next decade could have been very different. But along the way, I made mistakes, huge ones. On March 4, 1998, as I stood before Judge Harold Baker and pled guilty to all counts and waived my rights to a fraud trial, despite any good deed derived from my years as an FBI informant, I could not escape the fact that I had still made some very damaging decisions—again not the actions of a hero. I received a nine-year sentence that day. Many people, including the FBI agents, have said the sentence was way too long. But, the courts decided my fate, and I served my sentence.” – Mark Whitacre
Today, the FBI agents who were involved with Whitacre’s case tout him publicly as a “national hero” for his substantial assistance with one of the most important white-collar cases in history.
What does Mark say about that?
“Despite what you may read in various FBI media interviews or see about me on the Discovery Channel documentary, Undercover, make no mistake about it. I am not a hero.
“Young adults entering the business world need to learn from that. I was involved with criminal activity, and I went to prison for almost a decade. No one is above the law, no matter how successful, no matter how wealthy and no matter how educated.
“At one time in my life, and at a very young age, I had the world within easy reach. But poor, unethical decision-making changed my life forever. My hope is to guard others from the same ill-fate with my story. It is important to ALWAYS do the right thing.”
Four FBI agents along with a former federal prosecutor involved with Mark’s case are lobbying for a presidential pardon for Mark.
THE RIGHT THING
Whitacre’s story is an important personal and business ethics lesson about “doing the right thing.” But it is also a story of hope, family commitment and how to overcome extreme adversity.
WHILE YOU SEE A SECOND CHANCE AT LIFE, TAKE IT
But more than that, it’s a story of redemption … and the sublime grace and beauty of a second chance.
THE LATEST BOOK
Stevin Hoover’s Mark Whitacre: Against All Odds—How the Informant and his Family Turn Defeat into Triumph. Check it out on Amazon or Mark Whitacre’s website.
Mark Whitacre, Ph.D.:
Cypress Systems, Inc.
6706 North 9th Ave. Building D-Suite 26
Pensacola, Florida 32504 USA
Office Telephone: (850) 549-3522
Thumbnail and Photo # 1 Courtesy of H. Kopp Delaney