Business ethics are not limited to board rooms and profit and loss statements. Business ethics are personal ethics. That was the message to more than 200-hundred audience members at the keynote given by Mark Whitacre, PhD at the Supply Expo keynote address. Whitacre, COO of Cypress Systems, spent nine years in prison reflecting on this often forgotten principle.
Audience members were spellbound at Friday’s keynote address by Whitacre as he recounted the years he spent as a corporate witness, ie an informant, for the FBI in the largest corporate whistle blowing case in US history. The case is the subject of an upcoming movie, called The Informant, starring Matt Damon as Mark Whitacre (release in Sept. 2009), and highlights a dark time in the ingredients industry.
Even the best trained FBI informants are never undercover for more than one year. For nearly three years, Mark was under immense pressure to tape strategic conversations that would implicate a complex price fixing scheme. The case revealed a string of corporate price fixing operations for lysine, citric acid and high fructose corn syrup that influenced the prices of even the most common household items like pet foods and soft drinks.
In time, Mark broke under the magnitude of the task and tried to take his own life on two separate occasions. As his mental health declined, he made a decision that would change his life for the next decade. He committed fraud by stealing $9 million dollars from his employer. This added a tricky legal complexity to the case which would eventually lead to an eight year prison term.
Throughout Mark’s speech his emotions bubbled to the surface as he expressed deep gratitude for his wife’s love and dedication through those many years of incarceration. Mark recounted how his wife Ginger remained committed to their marriage and moved on three separate occasions to stay within regular visiting distance.
Mark admits that he was angry and bitter during his first few months in jail. A strong sense of entitlement took over his life as his career rose to an exceedingly high level of success at a very young age of 32. Mark says this is what led him to believe that he was above the law. In time, this bitterness dissolved when he saw the toll it took on his three children.
Along with Mark’s keynote, a panel included Ginger and Mark’s current employer Paul Willis, CEO of Cypress; Dean Paisley, the FBI agent in charge of the case; James Lieber and anti-trust lawyer and author Rats in the Grain(Four Walls, Eight Windows, 2000), a legal account of the case. Paisley and Leiber have been staunch supporters of Mark, both believing that though he was guilty of a crime, his sentence was much too severe. The panelists drew many conclusions to Mark’s case that were eerily similar to the current financial crisis, which drove home the message that a few people’s unethical or illegal business decisions can have seriously damaging effects on the general public.
Since his release from prison a little more than two years ago, Mark has been dedicated to furthering his work in selenium yeast and cancer prevention as the COO of Cypress Systems. Mark did his earliest doctorate research in selenium and feels very fortunate to have the opportunity to return to the science that brought him to this industry.