Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Former exec at Berkshire in clear, lawyer says

Sokol won't face charges for questionable trades

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OMAHA, Neb. -- A former top Berkshire Hathaway executive who many investors expected to succeed Warren Buffett one day reportedly won't face any charges for questionable trades he made before resigning in 2011, his lawyer said.

Attorney Barry Levine told the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times the Securities and Exchange Commission told him the agency ended its investigation and decided against charging against his client, David Sokol.

Levine and Sokol were unavailable Friday. An SEC spokesman declined comment.

Sokol resigned from Berkshire Hathaway in 2011 after telling Buffett he bought nearly 100,000 Lubrizol shares for about $100 apiece while Berkshire was in talks to acquire the specialty chemical company for $9 billion. Sokol had recommended Lubrizol to Buffett.

When Berkshire offered $135 in cash for each share of Lubrizol, the value of Sokol's shares increased to about $13 million.

Sokol has denied any wrongdoing in his investment in Lubrizol, which is based in Wickliffe, Ohio.

Buffett called Sokol's actions unethical and inexcusable. And the audit committee of Berkshire's board issued a report detailing how Sokol's actions had violated the company's ethics and insider-trading policies. The report is still available on Berkshire's website.

Investor and biographer Andy Kilpatrick said this news should conclude the story and Sokol should feel good to be cleared of charges.

"They probably looked at every trade he ever did and didn't find anything illegal," said Kilpatrick, who wrote Of Permanent Value: The Story of Warren Buffett.

The end of the investigation should also limit speculation about any problems at Berkshire. Buffett acknowledges the hands-off way he oversees the company's subsidiaries makes ethical transgressions possible, but he encourages employees to put Berkshire's reputation and ethics ahead of profits.

"At the time, it was certainly a cloud over Berkshire, and now that's lifted," Kilpatrick said.

Many investors had believed Sokol was in line to one day succeed Buffett as Berkshire's CEO partly because Buffett regularly praised him publicly, but Buffett said later Sokol's departure had no effect on Berkshire's succession planning.

Buffett did not respond Friday to a request for comment.

At the time of his resignation, Sokol was chairman of Des Moines, Iowa-based MidAmerican Energy -- one of Berkshire's biggest subsidiaries -- and CEO of NetJets. He was also chairman of Johns Manville.

Since leaving Berkshire Hathaway, Sokol has been managing his own personal investments. Primarily, he has been steadily buying shares of Middleburg Financial, which operates bank branches in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

Sokol holds 1.7 million shares of Middleburg's stock, giving him control of nearly 25 per cent of the banking firm.

Several months after Sokol resigned, Berkshire did acquire Lubrizol. That chemical firm joined a group of more than 80 companies Berkshire owns outright, including Geico insurance, General Reinsurance, BNSF railroad, Acme Brick, Helzberg Diamonds and many others.

Berkshire also holds major investments in IBM, American Express, Coca-Cola and several companies.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 5, 2013 B17

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