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Buffet at News Conference Addresses Sokol Controversy

Source: WSJ - Serena Ng and Shira Ovide

Posted on 02 May 2011

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Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway at a news conference on Sunday looked to limit the damage to his company and own reputation in the wake of a stock-trading controversy involving a top aide.

Mr. Buffett at the conference when asked about the effect the controversy is having on his reputation, he said: "I don't really feel it's changed much…Overall, everything I do is out there for people to judge."

Mr. Buffett was severely critical at Berkshire's annual meeting Saturday of the actions of the aide, who in January recommended Berkshire buy a company in which the aide had just invested. But on March 30, in announcing the aide was leaving, Mr. Buffett had spoken mildly of the aide's action. Berkshire Vice Chairman Charlie Munger said in an interview Sunday that the company fumbled that March 30 disclosure.

Mr. Buffett, in his news conference, said the company "will try to minimize mistakes we make in the future." Of his own reputation, he said he didn't think the matter would "change a record of 80 years."

Given Mr. Buffett's central role in the matter, he is likely to be interviewed if the Securities and Exchange Commission conducts depositions as part of its review.

The Berkshire chairman and CEO said Sunday he didn't know if he'd be called as a witness in a regulatory probe or possible civil litigation. He reiterated that Berkshire has turned over information to the SEC in response to an informal request. He said he wasn't aware of any formal probe.
Berkshire acted "very promptly, to make sure the [SEC] and the top of the enforcement division was well-versed," he said the day before at the annual meeting.

In a sign of how sensitively the company is handling the situation, it is keeping detailed records of all comments and relevant information about the affair, said Ron Olson, a Berkshire director and attorney, on Saturday.

A war of words between Mr. Buffett and the former top aide, David Sokol, heated up over the weekend. Mr. Buffett told the annual meeting he should have asked more questions when Mr. Sokol mentioned that he owned shares in chemicals maker Lubrizol Corp. as he recommended its acquisition.

In contrast to his March 30 remarks, when he said he thought Mr. Sokol's actions weren't "in any way unlawful," Mr. Buffett on Saturday called Mr. Sokol's actions "inexcusable" and said they violated the company's insider-trading rules and code of ethics. He said Berkshire had turned over "some very damning evidence, in my view" about Mr. Sokol's trades to the SEC.

Mr. Sokol maintains he did nothing wrong, and his attorney soon released a statement calling Mr. Buffett's stance a "resort to transparent scapegoatism."

Mr. Sokol bought shares of Lubrizol in December after discussing the company with investment bankers. He sold them that month and then in January bought shares again. About a week after this second, larger purchase, he recommended Mr. Buffett buy the chemical firm. The CEO eventually agreed, and Berkshire said in mid-March it would buy Lubrizol for $9 billion in cash.

Mr. Buffett told tens of thousands of shareholders in Omaha's Qwest Center Saturday that when Mr. Sokol first mentioned owning Lubrizol stock, "I obviously made a big mistake by not saying, 'Well, when did you buy it?"

He added: "But I think if somebody says I've owned the stock, you know it sounds to me like they didn't buy it the previous week."

Mr. Buffett acknowledged that his March 30 statement didn't communicate the gravity of the situation. "What I think bothers people is there wasn't some big sense of outrage," he said. "I plead guilty to that. [But] this fellow had done a lot of good things for us over 10 or 11 years."

Mr. Munger, in the Sunday interview, said, "We underestimated our communications needs given our position in the world."

He added about the controversy broadly: "I would say that in terms of causing uproar, it ranks right up there…I'd say it's in the top two in the last 50 years" for Berkshire. "But in terms of deep human significance, I'd say it's much lower."

Judging from reactions at Saturday's event—which also included hours of discussion of other topics, such as Mr. Buffett's views of the dollar, commodities and nuclear power—the 80-year-old Oracle of Omaha succeeded in placating many.

"Buffett admitted he made a mistake. The crowd forgave him," said Steven Kiel, president of Arquitos Capital Management who attended the meeting.
Some others said the CEO still hasn't adequately explained why he wasn't just as harsh a month earlier. "Buffett failed in his duty of candor" when he issued the March 30 release, said Janet Tavakoli, a financial consultant.

The statement Saturday from Mr. Sokol's lawyer, Barry Wm. Levine, said, "David Sokol is deeply saddened that Mr. Buffett, whom he considered a friend and mentor, would disparage him as he has done today." The lawyer said no new information had emerged since Mr. Buffett's earlier statement praising Mr. Sokol's "extraordinary" contributions.

Last week a committee of Berkshire directors concluded Mr. Sokol had misled management and "violated the duty of candor he owed the company."

The report said Mr. Sokol told Mr. Buffett he had become familiar with Lubrizol through owning its stock, without mentioning discussions with investment bankers.

The board report contained "errors and omissions," Mr. Sokol's lawyer said.

Mr. Buffett on Saturday recounted an incident several years ago when Mr. Sokol turned down $12.5 million in incentive pay, and suggested the money instead go his second-in-command at Berkshire's MidAmerican Energy.

Noting that this was far above the $3 million increase in the value of Mr. Sokol's Lubrizol stake following Berkshire's deal, Mr. Buffett said, "I think 20 years from now I will not understand what causes a man to voluntarily turn away $12.5 million to an associate without getting any credit for it in the world and...then 10 or so years later buy a significant amount of stock the week before he talked to me" about an acquisition.