Pensacola News Journal, front cover article, by Troy Moon • September 23, 2009
Meet the real Informant!
Area resident Mark Whitacre inspiration behind new movie
The movie poster screams "Matt Damon is 'The Informant!' "
But the poster is only half-true.
Pensacola resident Mark Whitacre is the real informant. Golden-boy movie star Damon just plays him on the big screen in the dark comedy released last week by filmmaker Steven Soderbergh.
"My wife," Whitacre said with a sly smile, "thinks I'm a lot better looking than Matt Damon."
Whitacre, 52, can smile easy now.
But for more than a decade, his life was mired in a web of deceit, corporate intrigue and mental illness that eventually cost him his high-paying corporate job and led to 8 1/2 years in prison, concluding in December 2006 at the federal prison at Saufley Field in Pensacola.
Whitacre, an Ohio native, was a young, rising executive at Archer Daniels Midland, an Illinois-based agribusiness conglomerate. He served as president of the company's BioProducts Division in the early 1990s.
In 1992, Whitacre told the FBI that ADM executives were involved in a price-fixing conspiracy to control the price of lysine, an amino acid used to boost livestock production.
The FBI recruited Whitacre to be an informant, rigging him and his briefcases with recording equipment so he could tape incriminating company schemes. He was an informant for more than three years.
ADM eventually settled with the government. It paid more than $100 million in fines and hundreds of millions more to class-action plaintiffs and customers.
But while Whitacre was informing for the FBI, he also was embezzling $9.5 million from ADM.
He was convicted of tax evasion and fraud and sentenced to 10 years in prison, but served less because of good behavior. He also repaid the money to the company.
After his release in 2006, Whitacre landed a job at Cypress Systems Inc., a California-based biotech firm. The company allowed him to open an office on North Ninth Avenue in Pensacola so his family could remain here. He's the chief operations officer, with most of his work done on the road.
His wife, Ginger Whitacre, is a kindergarten teacher at Warrington Elementary School. She was the school's Teacher of the Year in 2007.
Clearing his name
Today, Whitacre is fighting for a pardon.
Some of the loudest voices in his support are some of the very FBI agents who investigated the ADM case and one of the former assistant U.S. attorneys who prosecuted Whitacre.
In fact, retired FBI supervisor Dean Paisley, who headed the investigation, traveled to Pensacola from his home in Illinois to be at Whitacre's side during local news interviews on Tuesday.
At one point, Paisley, 66, choked up while defending Whitacre.
"This is where Mark and Ginger live," he said, his face turning red and his voice cracking. "People deserve to know the full story of what went on. Really, you talk about a national hero. This is a national hero to millions of citizens across the globe.
"What he did on his own, stealing $9 million, was miniscule compared to what ADM was stealing from the world. He never got credit from the government for the good things he did."
Whitacre and his doctors attribute his stealing to bipolar disorder, an illness that led to a variety of questionable behavior, from his inability to stay focused to financial shenanigans.
They say stress, fear of losing his job, his double-life as an informant and the secret he was keeping from everyone led to the bipolar disorder worsening.
"With everything going on, the bipolar disorder just expanded and got more exaggerated," Whitacre said.
The movie shows some of the odd behavior that he attributes to his mental illness.
At one point Whitacre's character is portrayed, during a high-stakes business meeting, as wondering where another business person purchased his tie. In the movie, the informant also tells countless people his parents were killed when he was young and that he was adopted by a well-to-do amusement park owner. But his parents were never killed, and he wasn't adopted.
"Ginger and I don't remember that. I don't remember doing that," he said of the fake adoption story that is repeated throughout the movie. "But on the other hand, I don't want to say I didn't say that because I was being delusional. When you're bipolar, you can't always remember."
Whitacre doesn't seem to mind the liberties the film takes with his story. A disclaimer at the beginning of the movie warns that parts have been dramatized for entertainment purposes.
"I found the movie very entertaining," Whitacre said. "I was impressed with Matt Damon and all the actors. They made it as a dark comedy, but for our family, it was a tragic story. Any parts that were dark comedy or comical, we didn't see it that way, because we lived it."
In June, the Whitacres were invited to a private screening of the movie in Burbank, Calif. Last week, they attended the film's premiere in New York City with the movie's stars, including Damon.
It was the first meeting between the two "Informants."
"He was very sensitive in that he hoped to portray mental illness in a sensitive manner," Whitacre said. "I could tell he really meant it from the heart."
At wife's urging
Whitacre said his wife is the one who insisted he tell the FBI about the ADM price-fixing.
"She really is the hero of the story," he said.
She is also a hero, he said, in that she held the family together while he spent eight-plus years in three different federal prisons across the country. The couple has three children, now grown.
"She moved the family to each location," he said. "She would visit every weekend. We got closer and stronger while I was in prison."
Then it was his turn to choke up.
"It's not the norm," he said, his voice cracking. "Most families split up when one is in prison. But she said we're going to get better, not bitter."
Whitacre said he and his wife like Pensacola and have made friends here. They live off Scenic Highway.
But he said most local people don't know about his role as the highest-level corporate whistle blower in U.S. history.
"Most haven't seen the movie and connected the dots," Whitacre said. "They just know us as Mark and Ginger."
One of the few who does know is Mike Kerr, a Pensacola systems engineer who met Whitacre about two years ago while working out of the same office complex. He found out about Whitacre's background months after meeting him.
"I was rather surprised," said Kerr, 51. "But he never focused on that. The guy's got like nine degrees, so there's a lot of interesting facets to him."
Despite his impressive academic credentials (he really does have nine degrees, including three doctorate degrees), Kerr knows Whitacre as a kind, down-to-earth fella.
"We're talking about someone who has had quite a substantial life," Kerr said. "And he's had issues in his life, but he's paid the price.
"But really, they're both just good-hearted down-home people. When you meet him and once you get to know him, he just has a grin that goes from ear to ear."
BREAKOUT BOX with Whitacre’s Bio:
Mark Whitacre - The Informant
Home: Born in Morrow, Ohio. Now lives in Pensacola.
Family: Wife, Ginger Whitacre, is a kindergarten teacher at Warrington Elementary School. The couple met in high school and now have three grown children.
Occupation: Chief operating officer and president of operations for the California biotechnology company Cypress Systems Inc. Whitacre works out of the company's Pensacola office.
Education: A bunch. He has nine degrees, including three doctorates and two law degrees. He has received degrees from Cornell University, the Ohio State University.