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Famous ex-con encourages community leaders at prayer breakfast

Everyone struggles with adversity, but there is a choice involved in how it shapes a life either in bitterness or to make it better. That was part of the message during a first-time event in the lakes area, which encouraged residents to set early...

Mark Whitacre, keynote speaker at the first Lakes Area Mayors Prayer Breakfast speaks Wednesday at Grand View Lodge. Whitacre's life as an FBI informant who then spent more than eight years in prison was depicted in the movie "The Informant" starring Matt Damon. Submitted photo by Trina Sutton
Mark Whitacre, keynote speaker at the first Lakes Area Mayors Prayer Breakfast speaks Wednesday at Grand View Lodge. Whitacre's life as an FBI informant who then spent more than eight years in prison was depicted in the movie "The Informant" starring Matt Damon. Submitted photo by Trina Sutton

Everyone struggles with adversity, but there is a choice involved in how it shapes a life either in bitterness or to make it better.

That was part of the message during a first-time event in the lakes area, which encouraged residents to set early alarms and leave the warmth of their beds on a rainy August weekday morning.

About 370 people got up early to attend the first Mayors Prayer Breakfast in the Brainerd lakes area. The event, which began at 6:30 a.m., Aug. 19, at Grand View Lodge in Nisswa, had some wondering what to expect as they waited to check in before hitting the breakfast buffet.

Organizers stated the purpose of the event was to unite the greater lakes region by "recognizing and supporting civic and community leaders with positive encouragement and prayer." Those leaders included mayors and elected officials, law enforcement, firefighters, military veterans, and those involved in education.

The nonprofit event was organized by the Mayors Prayer Breakfast Committee and local Christian Business Men's Connection. It took its cue from similar events hosted across the country, some for more than 40 years.

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"With increasing polarization and pressures on government and community leaders, it has never been more important to support them," organizers reported.

The road leading to the event began 18 months earlier when a group of business people met. Steve Mau, Brainerd General Rental owner, said the gathering at Grand View Lodge had the group wondering what they could do as community business people to support the greater lakes area from Aitkin to Brainerd and Baxter to Little Falls to Backus and the entire surrounding area.

"We found that prayer breakfasts were taking place all over the country," Mau said.

Mau said as they researched and planned the prayer breakfast there were many events unfolding across the globe from Ferguson, Mo. to ISIS in the Middle East.

"There's challenging times," Mau said. "It's not unusual that there are challenging times. There are challenging times it seems for every generation, it's just our time."

So, Mau said, what can a community do? Mau said at the mayors prayer breakfast they were going to support those community leaders in the very critical role they play in shaping the communities and lift them up in prayer.

The event's keynote speaker came with a life story that is the source of movies. Mark Whitacre doesn't have to wonder who would play him in a movie of his life. Matt Damon did just that in "The Informant." Whitacre's story comes with stunning success at a young age. At 32, he was president of the bio-products division at Archer Daniels Midland. The youngest divisional president in the company's history, he was working in one of the largest food additive companies in the world. It boasted revenues of more than $70 billion annually and employed more than 30,000. Its ingredients were in products people consumed daily - Kellogg's cereals, Kraft Foods, Tyson Foods, Coca-Cola and Pepsi.

A mansion to live in, eight-car garage, seven-figure income all came with the job. Whitacre was on track to move up to the top in the company. He had a family with his wife Ginger, who he met in eighth grade, and three children.

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"From the outside looking in, I had everything," Whitacre said. "I was living the American Dream - the best the world had to offer. People would drive by our home and say, "Mark Whitacre has it all." What they did not know is that I had a void in my heart the size of the Grand Canyon."

He was also involved along with the top executives at his company and others in a massive price fixing scheme. The top executives at Archer Daniel Midlands were getting together with competitors and fixing prices of several key ingredients.

"We had basically formed an international cartel," Whitacre said. "We were stealing a billion dollars each year from our large food and beverage customers, and that increased cost was being passed on to consumers. Basically, we were stealing from everyone around the world who bought groceries."

When his wife found out she told him to turn himself in to the FBI or she would.

"If it was not for a 34-year-old stay-at-home mom of three young children, the largest price-fixing scheme in U.S. history may never have been exposed," Whitacre said, emphasizing the company wasn't bad nor were most of the employees. But greed, he said, drove the top executives to theft.

What followed was three years of meeting morning and night with FBI officials and wearing a wire to work each day. Whitacre asked the group to imagine going to work each day wearing a tape recorder, having a second one in the briefcase and another in a notebook, secretly taping supervisors, co-workers, friends. He did that from 1992 to 1995 becoming the FBI's highest-level Fortune 500 executive to become a whistleblower. At the end, when he feared the loss of his position and income when the case came to light, Whitacre decided to steal what would have been his severance pay - $9.5 million. When the theft came to light, Whitacre lost his immunity as the whistleblower. But he said the FBI agents he worked with helped him get a lawyer and obtain a plea deal to serve six-months.

"There, I proved I was still my own worst enemy," Whitacre said. "I rejected the deal and fired my attorney. I hired new attorneys and started preparing for trial. One year later, I received a 10½ year sentence instead."

He served eight years and eight months. His wife and family moved to three states as he was transferred to different prison facilities. He didn't expect his marriage to survive. He didn't expect the four FBI agents to forgive him. He twice attempted suicide. Then others reached out to him, including a man, Ian Howes, who was part of the Christian Business Men's Connection. Another was Chuck Colson, of Watergate fame who founded Prison Fellowship. They told him God would forgive him.

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"For the first time I understood being a Christian is not about going to church every Sunday or what I did or didn't do, it was about a relationship with God," Whitacre said. He said he found contentment for the first time in his life in prison.

"My life's void, which I had tried to fill with money, mansions, cars and business success, was now satisfied. Before entering prison, I thought prison would be the end of my life, only to find that it was the beginning of my life. I placed my burdens on God's shoulders, trusting that He was going to take care of things."

Whitacre said miracles followed. He credits God with saving his marriage. His family spent 17 hours a weekend with him. Tyson Foods, Pepsi, Coca-Cola and Kraft set up a trust fund to help his family pay bills, send his wife back to college for a teaching degree and assist with college educations for their children. When he was released from prison a few days before Christmas in 2006, he was offered a job by another man who is a member of Christian Business Men's Connection. It's an organization Whitacre became active in as well and now he presents his story of redemption at annual mayors prayer breakfasts across the country.

"God has handled my burdens," Whitacre said. "He has changed my life. I was once obsessed with climbing the corporate ladder and possessed by greed, and now I find great joy in serving others. While in prison, I taught inmates how to read, conducted GED classes and helped several inmates write letters to their family members."

Whitacre said he was happier earning $20 a month in prison helping others than his corporate income. The movie treated the events of the crime drama in a much more humorous way. Whitacre said he understood it was a Hollywood script for a crime drama and not a faith-based movie.

"Ginger and I really enjoyed Matt Damon and his wife, Luciana," Whitacre said. "They were very impressed that our marriage survived the ADM case."

The FBI was not so understanding.

"The FBI were very upset that it was a comedy, when all three books on the case are serious dramas," Whitacre stated. "Therefore, the FBI did a very accurate Discovery Channel documentary six months later to have a very accurate legacy on the case."

The documentary was released in March of 2010. Go to www.markwhitacre.com/discovery.html or www.markwhitacre.com for more information.

Plans are to continue the prayer breakfast as an annual effort. Whitacre said with 370 people, basically capacity for the first event, he has no doubt it will grow here. Next year, he said, it may need a bigger building. He is convinced the events have the ability to be part of transforming communities.

Go to Lakes Area Mayors Prayer Breakfast at www.LAMPbreakfast.com for more information.

RENEE RICHARDSON, associate editor, may be reached at 218-855-5852 or renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Dispatchbizbuzz .

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