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SandRidge ousts CEO Ward, Bennett takes the helm

By Anna Driver and Michael Erman

(Reuters) - SandRidge Energy Inc's board of directors removed the energy company's founder and chief executive, Tom Ward, on Wednesday after a months-long struggle with activist investors who accused him of strategic mistakes and self-dealing at the expense of shareholders.

Ward, who was also under fire for his high pay, will receive a severance payment of more than $90 million in cash and stock.

The oil and gas company's board named its president, James Bennett, to replace Ward as CEO, citing a need for new leadership. Jeffrey Serota, a private equity executive at Ares Management, has been named interim nonexecutive chairman of the company, which is currently worth around $2.5 billion.

Ward's termination at SandRidge follows the departure of Aubrey McClendon as chief executive at another Oklahoma City energy company, Chesapeake Energy Corp . The two men, who both faced allegations of governance problems at their companies, founded Chesapeake together in 1989.

The SandRidge board said on Wednesday its four-month probe into allegations of improper related party transactions did not merit a "termination for cause," meaning Ward will receive the severance package.

The company has been under fire since last year from hedge fund TPG-Axon and another activist investor for governance lapses and strategic missteps.

Under a deal reached with TPG-Axon in March, the board agreed to replace Ward by June 30 or give the hedge fund a controlling number of seats.

Shareholders "are probably better-served now that Ward's no longer at the helm. It's going to be a more focused, streamlined SandRidge," said Mark Hanson, an oil and gas company analyst at Morningstar.

Hanson also approved of new CEO Bennett and said his background in investment banking and private equity could help with a sale of the company.

"He's a sharp guy," Hanson said. "This guy has the chops to lead a sale effort."

Bennett was promoted to be SandRidge's president in March and had previously served as its chief financial officer since January 2011. Before joining SandRidge, his experience included stints at energy focused private equity firm White Deer Energy and investment bank Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette.

STRATEGIC MISHAPS

Under Ward, well results from the company's top growth prospect, the Mississippi Lime in Oklahoma and Kansas, disappointed investors. He was also criticized by investors for reckless spending that created unnecessary risks for shareholders. The stock has fallen 90 percent over the last five years, compared with a 30 percent drop in the SIG Oil Exploration and Production index <.EPX>.

Between 2007 and 2012, Ward was paid more than $116 million in compensation by SandRidge, making him among the best paid executives in the oil industry.

Apart from claims of strategic missteps, TPG-Axon has alleged that Ward and the company's board allowed WCT Resources, an Oklahoma company run by Ward's son, Trent, to acquire the rights to drill for oil and gas near SandRidge operations.

SandRidge has said its board found no wrongdoing in the land deals and that WCT was "an independent oil and gas company."

Still, a Reuters review of chief executive Ward's employment contracts found that SandRidge's board had given Ward and his family wide latitude to profit from personal oil-and-gas deals in ways that could pose potential conflicts of interest.

"Two separate board investigations have now confirmed that Tom Ward's actions were proper," said Latham & Watkins attorney Steven Bauer, who has represented Ward. "No one has worked harder for or been more loyal to SandRidge Energy than Mr. Ward. Having weathered this storm, Mr. Ward is looking forward to the next chapter in his career, which he intends to continue in Oklahoma City."

SandRidge shares rose 4.3 percent to $5.30 in after-hours trading.

(Reporting by Anna Driver in Houston and Michael Erman in New York; editing by Gary Hill, Leslie Adler and Matthew Lewis)

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