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Activists To Appeal to Buffett at Berkshire Meeting

AP
Friday, 4 May 2007 | 1:54 PM ET

Two groups plan to appeal to billionaire Warren Buffett's sense of right and wrong at this weekend's Berkshire Hathaway shareholders' meeting.

One group, composed of people concerned about the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, will make their plea through a shareholder resolution that would require Berkshire to sell its $2.3 billion stake in PetroChina, a unit of a Chinese company doing business there.

The other group, representing American Indian tribes and commercial fishermen from California and Oregon, will make their plea through demonstrations and protests outside of the meeting before pursuing their claim in federal court.

This group wants a utility Berkshire acquired last year, PacifiCorp, to remove four dams from the Klamath River on the California-Oregon border, so salmon can swim freely and spawn again.

Between 25,000 and 28,000 shareholders are expected to attend Saturday's annual meeting in Omaha when Buffett and Vice Chairman Charlie Munger will spend nearly six hours fielding questions from the crowd.

Berkshire shareholders Gerald and Judith Porter of Ardmore, Pa., submitted the proposal that would prohibit Berkshire from investing in foreign companies that engage in activities that U.S. corporations cannot engage in because of presidential executive orders. An order President Clinton issued in 1997 that President Bush later expanded limits such investments in Sudan, which the U.S. has said is using its oil wealth to wage a genocide against the people in the Darfur region.

Buffett's assistant, Debbie Bosanek, said he wasn't granting interviews this week before the annual meeting. But Buffett did post a statement on the company's Web site in February defending his company's investment in PetroChina, and the iconic chairman and chief executive said in an interview that he'd welcome full discussion of the issue.

The proposal on Sudan faces long odds because Buffett controls 32.68% of PetroChina's stock, and many of Berkshire's shareholders regard him as one of the world's greatest investors, Morningstar analyst Justin Fuller said.

"Most of the shareholders are very like-minded," Fuller said.

Representatives of the Sudan Divestment Task Force and the Fidelity Out of Sudan group, which targets one of PetroChina's other large U.S. investors, will help the Porters make their case on Saturday.

Their challenge will be to convince Buffett and other Berkshire shareholders that Buffett was wrong when he argued that PetroChina shouldn't be held accountable for the actions of its parent company, the government-owned Chinese National Petroleum Co.

Buffett and the divestment groups agree that CNPC does business in Sudan, but they disagree about how separate and independent PetroChina is from its parent.

Buffett said he has seen no evidence that PetroChina operates in Sudan, but Gerald Porter said there is a compelling case that PetroChina and Chinese National Petroleum are intertwined.

The divestment groups point to the number of top executives who hold jobs in both companies and the way they both swap assets as strong evidence that PetroChina is not a separate entity.

"As far as we're concerned, PetroChina and CNPC are really the same company," Gerald Porter said.

About 40 universities, including Harvard and Stanford, and 10 states have decided to sell investments in companies doing business in Sudan, including PetroChina.

The Klamath River group hopes Buffett will exert pressure on one of his own subsidiaries, PacifiCorp, to remove four dams. The group plans to demonstrate outside the shareholder meeting Saturday and try to ask Buffett about the dams during the meeting. A federal lawsuit was filed this week claiming two of the dams on the river cause massive toxic algae blooms.

Members of the four American Indian tribes fighting for dam removal live along the Klamath in California and Oregon.

Conservation groups and commercial fishermen joined the tribes in their multiyear fight over the dams, which PacifiCorp is trying to relicense, because of concerns about water quality and wildlife. Last summer, salmon fishing off the California and Oregon coasts was nearly shut down after the third straight year of poor returns of wild chinook.

The company contends removal would eliminate a source of renewable, low-cost power. PacifiCorp serves 1.6 million customers in six Western states.

But the California Energy Commission has said PacifiCorp could save $101 million over the next 30 years by removing the dams and buying replacement power, rather than upgrading the dams and reducing power production to meet modern standards for fish protection.

"Clearly we have the moral high ground," said Craig Tucker, spokesman for the Karuk tribe. "But we believe this would be good for business."

In addition to listening to the groups pleading for changes, Berkshire shareholders will look for more details about the company's acquisition plans and its plan to replace the 76-year-old Buffett.

In his annual letter, Buffett said he plans to hire one or more investment managers who would become Berkshire's chief investment officer once he is gone.

One of Berkshire's current managers will become CEO at that point, and Buffett's job will be split in two.

Berkshire owns furniture, insurance, jewelry and candy companies, restaurants, natural gas and corporate jet firms and has major investments in such companies as Wal-Mart.

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