Mark Whitacre has been called a hero and a crook. Both descriptors are accurate. In 1992, the corporate executive blew the whistle on a worldwide lysine price-fixing scheme and worked with the FBI, undercover, for three years. But all the while, he was involved in a complicated embezzlement scam that netted him nearly nine years of prison time.
Whitacre, then, was a bundle of bewildering contradictions—many of which, he says, were the product of his undiagnosed bipolar disorder. He lied, cheated and stole millions of dollars, and yet many people—even some of the same people who put him away—are now asking that Whitacre receive a presidential pardon.
"Had it not been for the fraud conviction," former FBI agent Dean Paisley told herald-review.com, "he would be a national hero. Well, he is a national hero."
It's the sort of story that feels more like a Hollywood movie than real-life history—which, of course, it now is: The Informant!, an R-rated comedy released in theaters during the fall of 2009 and on video in February 20, features Matt Damon as Whitacre and, naturally, focuses on those three critical years of undercover work Whitacre did.
But the real Mark Whitacre, who dedicated his life to Christ while in prison and now lives in Pensacola, Fla., says the film doesn't tell the whole story, nor even the story he thinks is most important. I had a chance to talk with Whitacre recently, and he told me about his journey to faith, his time in prison and what it's like to have the most embarrassing moments of your life made into a movie.
Paul Asay: Hardly any of us will have a chance to see our stories told on the big screen, and perhaps that's a blessing. So here's the question: Did they get it right?
Mark Whitacre: Well, they focused on 1992 to 1995, when I became a whistleblower. That's when I went undercover for the FBI and I ended up being the highest level executive of a corporation ever to turn whistleblower in U.S. history. I would say they got a lot of it right. The movie focused on the mental illness, the bipolar disorder. But I've had the FBI here with me the last couple days … and they felt like it left out the size of the case and the things I did right.
But again, the focus was from 17 years ago and that's not who I am today. When I view that movie, it's like looking at a different person. My daughter is almost the age now that I was when I became a whistleblower. That's how long ago it was.
Asay: The movie is a dark comedy, and it plays your story for laughs. But obviously it was a very dark time in your life.
Whitacre: Oh yes. There were three books written on the case and all three were very, very serious stories. The most recent book, Mark Whitacre Against All Odds [by Floyd Parry] is the Christian story that really brings it up to the present time. It was a very serious story that even involves two suicide attempts.
Asay: One of the interesting things about the film is its portrayal of your wife, Ginger. She strongly encourages you to talk to the FBI, and she stands by you through some really hard times. Was she really that saintly?
Whitacre: Yes, absolutely. I wouldn't have even become a whistleblower if it wasn't for my wife. She was the one who put her foot down and said that she was going to tell the FBI if I didn't. She's the true whistleblower of the story, not me. The FBI was here yesterday, telling our newspapers and the people of Pensacola that I'm a national hero, but it's really my wife who's the national hero of this story. And not only did she do the ethical and moral thing, but she stood by me through nine years of prison, which is the remarkable thing.
Asay: My understanding is that she was also, throughout this period, a strong Christian. When did your faith develop?
Whitacre: I grew up in a Christian family and I would have said I was a Christian as a youth. … But there's a difference between going to church and being a Christian. The difference is really having Christ in your life and really letting Him guide your life, and that started for me during my first three or four months in prison in 1998.
When I was in prison, I started looking at the nine years ahead of me. I looked at the challenges: Would I even have a family when I got out? How would my family (I was the only breadwinner, my wife was a stay-at-home mom and we lost everything) survive financially, her raising three kids while I was in prison for nine years? Would I be employable when I got out, being a convicted felon? Those things became overbearing and I couldn't even sleep at night those first months in prison.
I had a Bible—[Ginger] sent me a Bible—and that's when I started reading it. I ended up reading it three times, Genesis to Revelation, while I was in prison. It was in my first few months, in June of 1998, that I became a Christian and really put all those burdens on Christ's shoulders. And at that time, right at the moment when I let Christ in my heart, that's when I had peace and contentment in my life.
Asay: Still, those years in prison must have been tough.
Whitacre: It became rewarding, actually. I started serving others right after that. I helped people get their GEDs, helped people learn how to read, helped some who were doing correspondence courses in college, helped them get their degrees. And I continued to read the Bible actively myself. Every Friday, Saturday, Sunday—every weekend—my wife came for all three days. For eight and a half years she never missed. So we spent good quality time together. After those first three or four months, prison was really easier than working undercover. I don't recommend it for anybody, but in our lives, when I look at all the chaos that I caused in our lives, it was really a more peaceful time than prior to prison.
Asay: What's your home life like now, compared to what it was like when the movie takes place? Can you tell a difference in how you deal with life now, compared to how you dealt with things before?
Whitacre: Absolutely. Prior to  I had a great career. I was president of a division of a Fortune 150 company … at the age of 32. My career was really, really taking off. And I had a Ph.D. from an Ivy League university, Cornell University, in biochemistry, so the right pieces were there.
But work became my only focus and I lost my balance. It's good to be ambitious and have drive, but I became hyper-ambitious and that's all I did—work, work, work to try to further myself, serve myself. It all became about ego, power and greed, and not just greed for money but also greed for power. And I was really losing my balance.
In prison I got that balance. I've been out of prison for three years now and we have that same balance. Our faith is first, our family is second, our fitness is third, and the firm, the corporation is fourth. [Whitacre founded and now runs a biotechnical company.]
Asay: For folks who see the movie, what would you hope they take away from it, and what do you want people to know about the real Mark Whitaker?
Whitacre: Well, they should know the movie is really about mental illness. Just like A Beautiful Mind is about schizophrenia, this movie is about bipolar disorder, and mine was untreated and undiagnosed at the time. They're showing the challenges of suffering from a severe mental illness and how stress, like working undercover and for a corporation simultaneously, can make a mental illness worse, especially when it's untreated and undiagnosed. I wasn't treated at all for it until I attempted suicide … but by that point the $9 million theft had happened and all the mistakes had already happened, so it was too late.
The director and the actors made it clear they wanted to be sensitive to the bipolar disorder, and they didn't want to make fun of mental illness. And I think they were sincere about that. But it's not the rest of the story. It's a very small part. I'm 52 years of age, and they focus on a three- to four-year period. The rest of the story is how my family survived.
The end of the movie does show my wife picking me up from prison in 2006, so it kind of gives a quick -second indication that, boy this family survived. But believe me it's a lot bigger than that. We survived because of our faith. Both my wife and I and our whole family. They make eight years of prison look like it's two minutes, because that's what they can do in a movie—it's not their fault. But the rest of the story is about faith and how it carried us through, and how our family survived and not only survived but thrived, my wife and our children. To me, that's really the story. … I hope people go beyond the movie to learn that part of the story.
Read Plugged In's review of The Informant!