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Mark Whitacre: The Spy Who Cried Help

8 minute read
John Greenwald

The day before he tried to kill himself, Mark Whitacre told his groundkeeper to come late to work. Fortunately for Whitacre, Rusty Williams takes pride in being punctual. Arriving at the four-acre Whitacre estate in Moweaqua, Illinois, shortly after 7 a.m. on Aug. 9, Williams found his employer unconscious in his car in a garage filled with auto-exhaust fumes. Williams drove the car out of the garage and shook Whitacre awake. “I just thanked God when he coughed and started speaking,” he recalls.

But the mystery remained last week even after Whitacre, 38, recovered in a Chicago hospital. Why would a corporate whistle blower, who for the past 2 1/2 years had carried hidden tape recorders and cooperated with the fbi in an investigation into price fixing at the giant Archer Daniels Midland Co., decide to take his own life? Whitacre was certainly under pressure. ADM lashed out at him after the executive surfaced as an fbi mole in June, accusing him of stealing at least $2.5 million from the company. Was the suicide attempt a sign that he was guilty? Or was it the despairing act of a fast-track executive who had been branded a traitor by colleagues, hounded by reporters, faced with anonymous threats and fired from his job two weeks earlier?

Whitacre says he was never a thief. In a letter to the Wall Street Journal just before his attempted suicide, Whitacre indicated that the $2.5 million the company said he took was, in fact, under-the-table payments ADM made routinely to favored employees. Whitacre is reported to have informed the Justice Department about the arrangement when he signed on as an informer. “Dig deep,” he wrote the Journal. “It’s there! They give it; then use it against you when you are their enemy.”

Whitacre had also been dogged lately by suspicions that he may have lied about his education. When Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, elected Whitacre a trustee in May, the school said he held a master’s degree in business from Northwestern University’s prestigious Kellogg School. In fact, Whitacre earned his M.B.A. last year through mail-order courses from Kensington University in Glendale, California. A Millikin spokesman said the information about Kellogg came from “Whitacre’s office” at ADM headquarters in Decatur; that left open the possibility that the company, rather than Whitacre, had pumped up his resume.

But no one has ever challenged the extent of Whitacre’s determination to succeed, which makes his casting as a whistle blower so unusual. Whitacre, say those who have worked with him, seemed happy and in a hurry. “He’d just swarm over a problem until it was solved,” says Professor Gerald Combs of Cornell University, where Whitacre earned a Ph.D. in nutritional biochemistry in 1983. “He was like a saw running on 220 volts instead of 110. We used to tease him about how wired he was.”

Whitacre brought that high intensity to ADM, where he arrived in 1989 after jobs as a researcher at Ralston Purina and a manager at Degussa, a German-owned chemical firm. He organized and ran ADM’s fast-growing biochemical-products division. Under Whitacre’s supervision the company began making the feed additive lysine in 1991; it now controls half the worldwide market. That made Whitacre a favorite of ADM chairman Dwayne Andreas and a likely successor to company president James Randall, 71. “He was very proud and excited about his work at ADM,” says Combs, who kept in touch with his former student. “Everything he had to say was positive.”

But as early as his first year at ADM, Whitacre told FORTUNE in a first-person account published last week, he began hearing from other managers that price fixing was an accepted practice at the com pany. His concern grew in February 1992, when Randall and vice chairman Michael (“Mick”) Andreas, the son of the chairman, told Whitacre to begin working with Terrance Wilson, the president of the corn-processing division. Wilson, they said, would instruct him “about how ADM does business.” But colleagues had warned Whitacre to be wary of Wilson because he was said to be involved in the price-fixing game.

Wilson and Whitacre were soon discussing the price of lysine in talks with representatives of ADM’s two biggest rivals in the field, the Japanese companies Ajinomoto and Kyowa Hakko. The Japanese were in a jam because prices had plunged from about $1.30 per lb. before ADM entered the market to about 60 cents per lb. When the group gathered at a Nikko Hotel conference room in Mexico City, Wilson stated that the price drop had created an unacceptable situation: buyers of lysine were getting a $200 million break at the expense of ADM and the Japanese producers. “The competitor is our friend, and the customer is our enemy,” Whitacre quotes Wilson as saying, a statement that Whitacre came to recognize as one of ADM’s unofficial mantras.

No price-fixing deals were cut at the Mexico session. But a series of odd, unrelated events rapidly transformed Whitacre into an FBI informer. Whitacre told FORTUNE that the FBI showed up at ADM’s door at the behest of Dwayne Andreas, but not in search of price fixing. The agency was called in because Andreas suspected that a saboteur was contaminating batches of lysine in ADM’s fermenting process. Whitacre says agents soon questioned him about the problem and that he was instructed by Mick Andreas to lie about a few details, including which phone line he used to conduct business from home. The younger Andreas apparently wanted to be sure Whitacre could continue to discuss lysine prices undetected.

But Whitacre made a fateful decision. “I did not feel comfortable lying to the FBI,” Whitacre said. Instead, he blurted the truth to special agent Brian Shepard, “a very trustworthy guy” who ran the Decatur office. Whitacre soon agreed to carry a recorder hooked to his inside coat pocket while working in the office and to tote a briefcase rigged with a taping device to sessions between ADM representatives and those of other companies. He also tipped the FBI to meetings where prices might be discussed with representatives of other companies so the agents could videotape the proceedings. “It’s amazing, some of the stuff that came up on the tapes,” Whitacre said. “There were meetings where agree ments on worldwide volume were reached as well as prices. And it was important to get tapes showing that I wasn’t leading this activity.”

Whitacre’s cover was blown after the FBI raided ADM offices on June 27. By prearrangement, agents interviewed Whit acre along with other executives to make it appear that he was no different. The FBI warned Whitacre to get an attorney without ties to ADM. But the advice was given casually, and Whitacre did not keep it in mind. As a result, Whitacre spent four hours talking to attorney John Dowd, whom ADM had hired. The next morning, Whitacre said in his magazine account, “someone at ADM called me and said, ‘Hey, Dwayne told me your attorney just told him that you’re the mole. You’re the one who caused all this.’ ” (Dowd has said Whitacre okayed notifying ADM about his role as an informant.)

The outcry stunned Whitacre, who had seen himself as a hero. “I really believed I was doing a good deed,” he says. “I thought I’d be able to fix the problem and stay with the company.” Such thinking can be typical of whistle blowers. “[They] often claim to be more loyal than management to the best interests of the company,” notes Columbia University professor Alan Westin, who has written a book about corporate informers.

The discovery of Whitacre’s role has made him a villain in Decatur, the home of ADM, where residents like Earl Gates argue in the local newspaper that Whitacre “violated the code” by going “public with internal problems.” But Whitacre’s neighbors in Moweaqua have rallied to his side, painting him and his wife as an unpretentious couple who give away a garageful of toys at Christmas and spend a lot of time with their children. Insists attorney Robert Allison, who works out of an office behind Mayor George Forston’s barbershop: “The only codes that mean anything in this country are those duly passed by the governing authorities and the codes of God. I fail to see where Mark Whitacre violated any of those codes. In fact, it appears to me that he upheld those codes to his peril.”

Until he emerges from his current silence, Whitacre will continue to mystify–as the man intolerant of deception who spent two years deceiving his colleagues, and as the hyperambitious ADM executive who seemed to think he could expose his company and still end up on top.

–Reported by James L. Graff/Moweaqua

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