Messier stands his ground ahead of Vivendi ruling

A French court on Friday is due to rule on whether Jean-Marie Messier misled investors about French media conglomerate Vivendi SA's financial health in the two years leading up to the company's near-bankruptcy in 2002.

 
Paris: A French court on Friday is due to rule on whether Jean-Marie Messier misled investors about French media conglomerate Vivendi SA's financial health in the two years leading up to the company's near-bankruptcy in 2002.
 
The verdict will follow an eight-year investigation and trial involving one of the most sensational corporate downfalls in recent French history.
 
Jean-Marie Messier leaving the French court during the trial last spring. For Mr. Messier, Vivendi's former chief executive, the ruling could provide a chance to clear his name. Mr. Messier denies the charges against him.
 
"I was young, I said too much and I became a symbol," said Mr. Messier, 54 years old, in an interview at Messier Maris et Associés, the mergers-and acquisitions consultancy he founded in the wake of his departure from Vivendi. "The trial needed to happen...as a sort of exorcism."
 
In the space of six years in the late 1990s, Mr. Messier turned a stodgy water company called Cie. Generale des Eaux into Vivendi Universal, a trans-Atlantic media giant.
 
Mr. Messier's appetite for acquisitions weighed on Vivendi's balance sheet, however. By June 2002, he was forced out as the company struggled with around USD 27 billion in debt. Prosecutors launched a criminal investigation soon after.

On Friday, the Paris court is expected to rule on prosecutors' charges that Mr. Messier manipulated Vivendi's share price with buy-backs of stock in 2001, according to court documents. He could face as much as five years in jail if found guilty.

The court is also due to judge prosecutors' charges that Mr. Messier misled investors with statements about the company's financial health in a series of newspaper interviews and public declarations, according to the documents.

Mr. Messier has long denied the allegations, and he reiterated during the interview that he did nothing inappropriate. He also defended his strategy at Vivendi.

"The vision was right and the ambition was there...but outside factors hit us," he said. He attributed Vivendi's financial woes not to his aggressive acquisition strategy but to the bursting of the Internet bubble and the Sept 11 terrorist attacks in the US in 2001.

In his Vivendi heyday, Mr. Messier presided over thousands of employees in businesses stretching from book publishing to Universal Studios. He promoted a vision of entertainment piped to any screen at anytime. However. technology wasn't yet advanced enough to beam films and music to handheld devices over the Internet.

Mr. Messier also cultivated a high-flying image. He flitted between Paris and New York in a Falcon jet, was featured regularly in glossy magazines and was dubbed "master of the world" by the French media.

"Looking back I would have done some things differently," he said in the interview, which was conducted shortly before the verdict was set to be announced in November.

Following his departure from Vivendi, Mr. Messier, then 45, headed to the US to reinvent himself. He created an M&A advisory business with offices in Paris and New York. Despite the media backlash in France over Vivendi's financial troubles, several old acquaintances provided Mr. Messier with business.

The 30-person Messier Maris Associes has advised media conglomerate Lagardére SCA and retail company PPR SA on deals, according to Mr Messier.

In a separate class-action suit in New York last year, Vivendi was found guilty of misleading shareholders about the company's financial health between 2001 and 2002.
 
However, the jury found that Mr. Messier and Guillaume Hannezo, the former chief financial officer, weren't liable for any of the alleged misstatements.
 
A judge has yet to determine the amount of money that Vivendi may have to pay shareholders. Vivendi said it would appeal the decision.
 
The Paris court will hand down rulings on six other former Vivendi executives on Friday.
 
Bureau Report
 
 
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