March 22, 2017 / 9:28 PM / 4 months ago

Dole CEO reaches $74 million settlement over 2013 buyout

David H. Murdock, chairman of Dole Foods at the premiere of film 'The Tempest' in Hollywood in this December 6, 2010 file photo.Fred Prouser/Files

(Reuters) - David Murdock, the 93-year-old billionaire chief executive of Dole Food Co, has reached a $74 million settlement of claims that he shortchanged shareholders in 2013 when he took the produce company private in a $1.2 billion buyout.

The all-cash accord won preliminary approval from U.S. District Judge Sue Robinson in Wilmington, Delaware, on March 16, and also covers claims against C. Michael Carter, Dole's former chief operating officer.

It is separate from a $115.8 million settlement, including interest, approved in February 2016 by a Delaware state judge to resolve related claims under Delaware law, court papers show.

Shareholders accused Murdock and Carter of driving down Dole's share price, and its eventual takeover price, by downplaying the Westlake Village, California-based company's ability to boost profit, including by cutting costs and buying farms, and also by canceling a stock buyback.

They said that let Murdock, now worth $2.7 billion according to Forbes magazine, acquire the 60 percent of Dole he did not already own for a lowball price.

Murdock and Carter denied wrongdoing in agreeing to the $74 million settlement, which was made public on March 10. Robinson scheduled a July 18 hearing to consider final approval.

Lawyers for Dole, Murdock and Carter did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Delaware Vice Chancellor Travis Laster said in August 2015 that the buyout undervalued Dole by 17 percent, and that Murdock and Carter should pay $148.2 million to shareholders.

That sum was later reduced to the $115.8 million, which was paid last March 28, but did not cover shareholders who accused Murdock and Carter of securities fraud under federal law. Those claims are covered in the $74 million settlement.

The lead plaintiffs in the latest settlement are the Proxima Capital Master Fund Ltd and The Arbitrage Fund, both in New York; the San Antonio Fire and Police Pension Fund; and the Fire and Police Health Care Fund, San Antonio.

Their lawyers, led by Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossmann and Entwistle & Cappucci, plan to seek fees of up to 25 percent of the settlement fund, court papers show.

The case is San Antonio Fire and Police Pension Fund et al v. Dole Food Co et al, U.S. District Court, District of Delaware, No. 15-01140.

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Peter Cooney

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