published Saturday, April 13th, 2013

Faith Focus: Finding freedom in prison

"The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades."

If it applied to anyone in the late 1980s, the lyric from the 1986 hit by Timbuk 3 applied to Mark Whitacre.

At 32, he was president of a division of Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), a Fortune 500 company. He had a beautiful wife, three children and was promoted in only three years to corporate vice president and corporate officer. He and his family lived in a mansion, and his compensation package hit seven figures.

Only a few years later, Whitacre was confronted by that same wife, who sensed big changes in her high-school-sweetheart husband. He was consumed with work and seemed unhappy.

Eventually, he told her about his involvement in the long-term price-fixing scheme at ADM, in which the company essentially was stealing money from its customers and passing on higher prices to consumers.

Persuaded by his wife to turn himself in, Whitacre did so, knowing it might cost him his career and his high-flying life. Once he confessed, the FBI asked him to wear a wire and work undercover for the agency in an effort to bring down the other executives involved.

He did that for three years, becoming the highest-level Fortune 500 executive ever to be a whistleblower for what turned out to be the largest price-fixing scheme in U.S. history.

Whitacre, who later spent nine years in jail for stealing $9.5 million from the company on which he had just blown the whistle, will be the speaker for the 35th annual Chattanooga Area Leadership Prayer Breakfast on April 30 at the Chattanooga Convention Center. For information on the event, visit www.ChattanoogaPrayerBreakfast.org.

Not surprisingly, there is a rest-of-the-story

moment for Whitacre, who credits his stay-at-home-mom wife for forcing him to turn himself in and expose ADM's scheme. Otherwise, he says, "it probably would have been going on today."

But even after doing the right thing by turning in the company and being given immunity for his FBI work, he says he was still addicted to the position and income he had.

"I got obsessed (with the desire for money) after growing up in a middle-class family," he says. With assets such as a corporate jet at his disposal, he had the life of athletes and rock stars.

Since ADM was likely to fire him when it learned what he was doing, Whitacre decided to steal what would have been his $9.5 million severance pay. When he was exposed in 1995, and then turned in by ADM for the theft, he nearly wriggled free again.

Facing a plea deal that likely would have given him six months in prison, he turned it down because he would have been marked as a felon for life.

"I couldn't wrap my hands around that," Whitacre says. "It was pride, narcissism. I was definitely still trying to control things."

Instead, he was given nine years in prison. In hindsight, though, "it was a net gain by having a longer sentence," he says.

Prior to going to prison in 1998 and after two suicide attempts, he was introduced to a man from the Christian Business Men's Connection who reached out to him, read the Bible with him and discipled him using an investigative form of Bible study called Operation Timothy.

"I had lost all my friends," Whitacre says, "so it was wonderful to have a friend, a person who [wanted] to talk to me. There were a lot of other things he could've been doing."

While he was in prison, paroled Watergate felon Chuck Colson came to visit him and helped him understand that no sin he had committed was unforgivable. The stealing from the "dirty management" of ADM was bad enough, Whitacre says, "but I was not so sure (what he put his family through) was forgivable."

Finally surrendering to Christ three months after entering prison, he says the rest of his term gave him "the peace and contentment I had never felt."

"For the first time in my life," Whitacre says, "I felt like I could fill that void in my life. In 14 years in the Fortune 500 world, I never filled that void. They could have given me $100 million (in salary). I finally got it earning $20 a month in prison."

His message at the prayer breakfast, he says, "is a story of redemption and second chances. Society has given me a second chance, but God will redeem you no matter how big your sins, if you confess and repent. Mine's a good example of his grace and mercy. I definitely didn't deserve it."

Contact staff writer Clint Cooper at ccooper@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to his posts online at Facebook.com/ClintCooperCTFP.

about Clint Cooper...

Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...

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