HITS Daily Double


Former Vivendi Universal CEO Subject of
Formal Investigation
Many millions of euros may separate Jean-Marie Messier from the common thief who is arrested, locked up and made to post bail, but that’s about the only thing, as Messier’s treatment at the hands of French authorities showed this week.

After being arrested and detained for questioning Monday, the former Vivendi Universal CEO was held until Wednesday, when officers of the French police Financial Crimes Brigade made it known he is now the subject of a formal investigation, according to reports.

During his time at the Vivendi helm, Messier went on an acquisition spree that included buying Seagram and its Universal assets (including the Universal Music Group, which Vivendi still owns) from Edgar Bronfman Jr., creating Vivendi Universal. Messier, however, recklessly spent the company into $42 billion in debt, bringing it to the edge of bankruptcy before he was removed and replaced by current CEO Jean-Marie Fourtou.

Upon his release, Messier was required to pay what amounts to bail of 1.35 million euros ($1.62 million) and was instructed not to talk about the case.

The investigation of Messier is part of a deepening probe into possible financial crimes committed by Vivendi Universal officers during late 2001. A complaint from a group of investors got the ball rolling, and it has gathered momentum since, now including allegations of stock manipulation, insider trading, publication of misleading financial information and misuse of company funds.

Messier may ultimately be charged with crimes related to nearly all those allegations, should the formal investigation turn up sufficient evidence.

At the heart of the investigation seems to be a period in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, when Vivendi Universal allegedly spent $1.2 billion to buy back shares in order to prop up its share price. Investors claim that VU bought back many more of its own shares than it was authorized to, and did it during a financial reporting period—both big no-nos according to French regulations. Messier and his former CFO, Guillaume Hannezo, are also suspected of selling off shares based on their knowledge that the company was in trouble.

Both Messier, Hannezo and others say the French Financial Markets Authority knew of the share buybacks. But get this—the French Financial Markets Authority is also under investigation. How high does it go? We’ll have to wait and see.

Messier ran Vivendi from 1996, when it was a humble but stable water utility, to 2002, when it had become a debt-laden entertainment/telecom conglomerate teetering on the verge of collapse.