Messier Denies Fraud

Former Vivendi chief exec Jean-Marie Messier admits he may have made some mistakes in his time but he told a New York jury that he’s “never, never, never” committed fraud.

He’s the major defense witness and took the stand Nov. 20 to face a shareholders’ class-action lawsuit accusing him and former Vivendi chief financial officer Guillaume Hannezo of hiding the company’s true financial condition before a $46 billion three-way merger with Seagram Co. and Canal Plus.

Messier, who also faces criminal charges in France, is accused by investors of failing to disclose a liquidity crisis and of manipulating the company’s share price. He has denied any wrongdoing.

The federal court in Manhattan has heard investors’ complaints about how dire internal communications among Vivendi executives contrasted sharply with Messier’s positive public statements before he was fired in 2002 at the insistence of the company’s lenders.

Hannezo, who’s already had seven days in the witness box, once said that being financial officer for Vivendi at the turn of the millennium was like “riding in the death seat,” apparently referring to being a front-seat passenger in the company that Messier was driving.

“I don’t want it to end in shame”, he said in a handwritten letter to Messier December 2001, which the shareholders’ lawyers have produced as part of the evidence.

The letter likened a threat of a downgrade by debt ratings services earlier that year to “the near miss of a cannonball.”

Messier’s strategy was to make acquisitions that would transform Vivendi Environment, France’s main water and sewage company, into an international media and entertainment giant.

When he was booted July 2002, new Vivendi chief Jean-Rene Fourtou was left to reduce a euro 19 billion debt mountain by selling off some of the assets.

At one stage the utility company-turned-entertainment juggernaut was reported to be in danger of having to sell entertainment assets including the Universal Music Group, the world’s largest music company, but Fourtou was able to raise enough cash elsewhere.