Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., tours the exhibition area of the Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting at the Qwest Center in Omaha, Nebraska, on April 30. (Daniel Acker/BLOOMBERG)

Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting Saturday was dominated by somber topics as CEO Warren Buffett explained to about 40,000 shareholders how the company had been battered by a trusted former employee’s misdeeds and a string of natural disasters.

Buffett assured the crowd at an Omaha convention center that Berkshire is strong enough to withstand both the David Sokol scandal and the estimated $1.7 billion in insurance losses that drove profits down 58 percent in the first quarter.

Buffett said he doesn’t think he will ever understand why Sokol bought stock in Lubrizol shortly before recommending that Berkshire buy the chemical company. Buffett said he believes Sokol clearly violated Berkshire’s ethics and insider trading policies.

“It’s a situation that’s sad for Berkshire and sad for Dave,” Buffett said.

Buffett acknowledged that he made a mistake by not asking Sokol more about his Lubrizol stock when they first discussed the company in January. Buffett said he had no reason to think Sokol had just bought the stock the week before.

Buffett previewed Berkshire’s earnings at the meeting, ahead of their scheduled release on Friday. He said the biggest factor in the earnings drop was about $1.7 billion in pretax losses related to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, Australian floods and the New Zealand earthquake.

“We had probably the second-worst quarter for the insurance industry in terms of disasters around the globe,” Buffett said.

Buffett estimates that Berkshire will report $1.5 billion in net income, down from $3.6 billion last year. He did not offer earnings-per-share figures.

Buffett and Berkshire Vice Chairman Charlie Munger spent nearly six hours answering questions at the annual meeting.

One early question asking why Buffett wasn’t tougher on Sokol drew mild applause from the audience. Buffett has always promised to be ruthless with anyone who hurts Berkshire’s reputation.

Sokol denies any wrongdoing. Before his departure, Sokol had served as chairman of Berkshire’s MidAmerican Energy, NetJets and Johns Manville units.

Buffett, who has long advised Washington Post Co. Chairman and Chief Executive Donald Graham on the financial stewardship of the company, announced in January that he would step down from The Post board in May when his term as a director expires.

Associated Press