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Dave Kolpack, Associated Press, Published August 02 2013

Offutt suing insurance company over potato case

FARGO — A prominent North Dakota potato farmer, businessman and philanthropist who's among a group of people accused in an alleged price-fixing scheme is suing his insurance company for failing to cover his defense costs.

Ron Offutt, of Fargo, is among the defendants in a federal lawsuit filed in June by Associated Wholesale Grocers Inc. against United Potato Growers of America, its affiliate United Potato Growers of Idaho and other parties.

The suit accuses potato growers of driving up prices while spying on farmers with satellites and aircraft fly-overs to enforce strict limits on production. The defendants have denied the charges and asked that the suit be dropped.

Offutt last week filed a separate complaint against Twin City Fire Insurance Co., accusing the company of breach of contract.

"Despite said allegations triggering coverage for Ron Offutt, Twin City has refused to provide a defense" for Offutt, the lawsuit reads. It seeks unspecified damages that include defense costs, pre-judgment interest and attorneys' fees and expenses.

The 73-page policy lists Idahoan Foods LLC as the insured entity. Offutt is the chairman of Idahoan Foods "and therefore a manager and insured person under the policy," the suit said.

Pamela Rekow, a spokeswoman for The Hartford, the parent company of Twin City Fire Insurance, declined to comment. Shannon Gregor, Offutt's lawyer, did not return a message seeking comment.

The insurance company has until Aug. 14 to respond to the lawsuit.

United Potato Growers of America has organized growers in 15 states. It has members in Alaska, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. It represents three-quarters of the nation's fresh potato production.

The grocers are asking for unspecified damages that will likely be in the millions. They are focusing on growers of fresh potato varieties found in big bags, as well as potatoes processed into crinkle-cut fries, Tater Tots and other products and sold in freezer sections of the group's stores.

Offutt is the founder and chairman of R. D. Offutt Company, the nation's largest producer of potatoes, and RDO Equipment Company, the largest network of John Deere construction and agricultural equipment dealerships in the United States. The company's corporate headquarters is located in Fargo.

Two years ago North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple presented Offutt with the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award. It is the state's highest honor.

"Ron Offutt is one of our premiere business leaders and he has gained national recognition for his visionary leadership, entrepreneurism and philanthropy," Dalrymple said in presenting the award. "He is a strong job creator for North Dakota, and his many business enterprises have contributed to the growth of our agriculture industry and to the diversification of our economy."

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.