By Tom Hals
WILMINGTON, Delaware (Reuters) - Dole Food Co owner David Murdock began a trial on Monday defending his 2013 buyout of the world's largest fruit and vegetable producer with often unfocused testimony about his unusual memory, passion for nutrition and dislike of people talking about his age.
A lawsuit brought by shareholders accuses Murdock, 91, of stealing Dole out from under them in a management buyout for $1.6 billion, or $13.50 per share.
Shareholder attorney Stuart Grant pressed Murdock for more than five hours in a Delaware Court trying to establish that he dominated the Dole board before he privatized the company.
Several times Grant played video excerpts from Murdock's depositions to ask if he was testifying truthfully.
"You always twist what I say," Murdock said. "You always try to make me look dishonest."
Grant replied, "I don't need to do that, you do it on your own." Grant's comment drew a warning from Travis Laster, the Court of Chancery judge.
Murdock repeatedly took several minutes when asked for a yes or no response, and instead talked of his ability to recall dozens of poems from memory, of dyslexia or about nutrition. Laster interrupted to demand a focused response.
While stockholders approved the Dole deal by a razor-thin margin, union pension funds filed a class action on behalf of shareholders in 2013, claiming the sale process was unfair.
Several hedge funds sought to have their Dole shares appraised, which allows the Delaware court to determine a fair value for the stock. The trial will provide evidence for both lawsuits and Murdock could be on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars if it is proven he manipulated the sale process to scoop up Dole for a discount.
Murdock dropped out of high school and rode his investing acumen to one of America's biggest fortunes. He has insisted he overpaid for Dole, and that the sale process was fair.
On Monday, Grant tried to show Murdock had planned the buyout by driving down the stock price while simultaneously raising personal cash for the deal by selling Lanai, a Hawaiian island he owned, for $300 million.
Grant wanted to know if he forced company director Denny Weinberg to quit because he threatened Murdock's plans. Weinberg retired on his own, Murdock replied, but said Weinberg irked him by suggesting Dole needed a younger chief executive.
"I don't like people talking about my age," Murdock said.
(Editing by Noeleen Walder and Grant McCool)