Billionaire investor Warren Buffett conceded Saturday that the Securities and Exchange Commission has requested information from officials at his Berkshire Hathaway holding company for information about the controversial stock purchase of former Berkshire manager David Sokol, but added that the SEC as of now has not launched a full-scale investigation into the matter.
In a FOX Business interview right after the shareholder meeting, Buffett told FBN, “We received one of those voluntary information requests but, no, I have not been subpoenaed,” Buffett revealed. “As far as I know, there's no formal investigation or anything of the sort. But anything that the SEC wants, we cooperate with.”
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An SEC spokesman wasn't immediately available for comment.
The new details about the status of the SEC's interest in Sokol's purchase of shares of Lubrizol, just before Berkshire acquired the company, earning Sokol $3 million in trading profits, comes amid an increasingly nasty war of words between Buffett and lawyers for Sokol in the backdrop of Berkshire's much-hyped annual shareholder meeting.
In a ‘First on FOX Business’ interview Saturday afternoon, Buffett pushed back against Sokol’s attorney, who, in a statement issued one hour after Buffett finished a day of shareholder questions on various subjects, accused Buffett of “flip-flopping” and “transparent scapegoatism.”
Barry Levine, attorney for Dickstein Shapiro says “at no time did Mr. Sokol violate the law or any Berkshire policy."
“He certainly violated the Berkshire rules and the (Berkshire) audit committee found that out,” Buffett told FOX Business after FBN read him Levine’s release.
During the shareholder meeting, Buffett had described Sokol’s advance stock purchases of Lubrizol, (a company Berkshire bought after Sokol flagged Buffett it might be a company he should consider purchasing) as “inexcusable and inexplicable.” Buffett says he later discovered it was Citigroup bankers who had presented the Lubrizol idea to Sokol, hoping he’d bring itto Buffett’s table.
Buffett told FOX Business that as soon as John Freund, Citigroup’s managing director of equity sales, mentioned Citi’s Lubrizol involvement to him, Buffett ordered lawyers to investigate Sokol’s motives.
“In terms of being misled, I mean, there are no questions about that, in terms of Citigroup'sparticipation and in terms of the way he stated his ownership” of Lubrizol,” Buffett told FOX Business.
The Berkshire investigation revealed that Sokol, who had casually mentioned to Buffett he owned ‘some’ Lubrizol stock, in truth had actually bought a $10 million position in the specialty chemicals company before trying to get Buffett interested. Shortly after Sokol suggested Buffett buy Lubrizol, Buffett bought the company for $9 billion.
The Sokol drama was the subject of a 12-minute statement Buffett made at the start of the shareholder meeting which drew some 35,000 people. In that statement, Buffett revealed compensation numbers for Sokol, pointing out that 10 years earlier, Buffett tried to give Sokol a $50 million bonus but that Sokol requested half of it be given to his MidAmerican Energypartner Greg Abel so that it be ‘fair and equitable.’ Buffett said he found it “inexplicable” that 10 years later, Sokol would take an ethically risky stock bet that would end up netting him only $3 million.
Buffett told FBN, “Today I said some very important things that -- that really reflected quite well on David including something I said about the compensation arrangement made many years ago. I mean, the man did some very good things. I pointed those out in the press release. But healso did some things he shouldn't have done at the end.”
Sokol’s lawyer disagreed entirely with Buffett’s assessment. “David Sokol is deeply saddened that Mr. Buffett, whom he considered a friend and mentor, would disparage him as he has done today.” Levine went on to write, “It is alarming that Mr. Buffett would be advised to so completely flip-flop and resort to transparent scapegoatism. After 11 years of dedicated and hugely successful service to various Berkshire Hathaway subsidiaries, Mr. Sokol would have expected to be treated fairly.”
Berkshire officials have said company lawyers interviewed Sokol three times about the matter. in March. Sokol abruptly resigned in late March. Buffett issued a news release March 30th in which he complimented Sokol for his years of service running Berkshire companies, including NetJets and MidAmerican Energy. Deeper into that release, Buffett outlined Sokol’ stock purchases of Lubrizol, saying he didn’t think Sokol had done anything wrong or unlawful.
That release unleashed a tidal wave of criticism from media and Buffett watchers, some who questioned why Buffett didn’t demand more details from Sokol after Sokol mentioned he owned Lubrizol stock. Buffett defended his actions.
“If any one of our directors, any one of the (BRK) managers came to me and said, 'I think you should look' -- and he was talking about buying the company, not buying the stock... ‘so I think you should look at Lubrizol's possible acquisition then.’ I say, how come? He says, well, I own the stock and I followed it and it's -- it's Berkshire's kind of business.’
“It just never occurred to me that he had bought stock the week before or that Citigroup had been involved in giving him information. None of that came out (in our initial conversation). And I've worked with Dave for 10 or 11 years, and I've never had any reason to question, you know, his behavior on anything in the past.”
Sources at the Securities and Exchange Commission have told FOX Business that since the scandal broke, the SEC has begun looking into the matter. Buffett revealed at the shareholder meeting that Berkshire immediately flagged the SEC’s enforcement division the moment the company realized there might be a problem but that no subpoenas have been received.
FOX Business confirmed last night with Berkshire attorneys that Buffett will “absolutely cooperate” with any SEC request.