Ex-Vivendi CEO: I made mistakes but never misled

AP News
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Posted: Nov 20, 2009 7:35 PM

Former Vivendi CEO Jean-Marie Messier told a jury Friday he made mistakes in his troubled bid to turn the French water company into a global media giant, but he never misled shareholders about the risks.

Messier said he strove in good faith to build the company, but he didn't foresee technological limitations and worldwide financial problems that contributed to its near-bankruptcy in 2002.

"Some of my management decisions turned wrong, but fraud? No. Never. Never. Never," he said, testifying in a federal lawsuit filed for thousands of investors who say Vivendi hid its worsening finances.

Vivendi was mainly a water company when Messier became its chief executive in 1996. An investment banker who had specialized in media and communications interests, he embarked on a buyout binge that included the Universal film studios and music label in the United States, European pay-TV station Canal Plus, a French publishing arm and a major French cell-phone operator.

Messier became a star of the French business world. But the acquisition spree saddled the company with billions of dollars in debt, and its shares lost more than 80 percent of their value between 2000 and 2002, when Messier was forced out. Vivendi nearly went bankrupt before selling many of its businesses to survive.

The investors say executives knew the company was in trouble but kept shareholders in the dark. Their lawyers have contrasted internal documents warning about the company's problems with public assurances that it was in good shape.

The company's lawyers have said it always had enough cash and credit to pay its bills and always followed accounting rules.

Messier told the court he envisioned Vivendi blending entertainment with such communications technology as cell phones. But the ideas proved to be ahead of the technology of the time, and the company was jolted by such events as the financial shock following the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, he said.

"Yes, there were risks. There's always risk when you try to implement a strategy," he said, testifying in English rather than his native French. "But these risks, they were disclosed."

Claims that he duped investors, pushed the company to the brink of ruin and engineered losses for shareholders are hurtful and "outrageous," he said.

"I did my best, my very best. And sitting here today, I'm just sad it did not prove to be enough," he said.

Messier, 52, is expected to continue testifying for several days. He now runs a financial consulting business.

Separately, Messier and other former top executives were ordered last month to stand trial in France on charges of misleading investors.

Meanwhile, Vivendi SA is currently weighing whether to sell its 20-percent stake in NBC Universal in a deal that would help clear the way for Comcast Corp., the biggest U.S. cable TV operator, to create one of the world's most powerful media companies.