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Messier Dogged by Questions

The former Vivendi Universal chief, out promoting a book on his tenure, is unable to keep attention away from government probes.

November 16, 2002|Achrene Sicakyuz | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — Deposed Vivendi Universal Chief Executive Jean-Marie Messier stepped into the spotlight Friday to promote his new tell-all book, "My True Diary," about his stormy tenure at the top of the giant media conglomerate.

But the reporters he had summoned were more interested in the troubled chapter that has come since he left the company.

Messier was peppered with questions about the investigations tprosecutors in France and the United States have launched amid allegations of fraud and other corporate misdeeds while Messier was at the helm.

"I refuse to discuss these investigations. Vivendi is no Enron," he said, referring to the fallen U.S. energy trader, "so I am not afraid to go to jail."

"Let the judges do their job," Messier added at the news conference, which capped a weeklong media blitz.

Messier said he had not received a summons from magistrates investigating the case in Paris, but was ready to answer officials' questions about Vivendi's accounts.

"There has been no fraud or financial manipulation at Vivendi," he insisted.

Vivendi, under Messier's watch, is being investigated on several fronts.

France's market watchdog has been scrutinizing the company's financial records. Prosecutors in Paris also have been investigating whether Vivendi falsified financial reports to calm investors. The company's stock price has plummeted 80% this year.

Across the Atlantic, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York has opened a preliminary criminal investigation, while the Securities and Exchange Commission's Miami office has been conducting an informal inquiry.

Since a boardroom coup led to his ouster last summer, Messier has spent much of his time writing his new memoir, which chronicles his reversal of fortune. In it, he reminisces about his days at the top -- when he went rafting with Bill Gates and had tete-a-tetes with Robert Redford. Such encounters helped him cultivate an image as a jet-setting Hollywood executive, but drew the ire of France's more staid corporate elite.

Messier acknowledges making mistakes while transforming the historic water company into a media giant designed to rival AOL Time Warner Inc. Under Messier's leadership, Vivendi bought Universal's entertainment holdings and accumulated nearly $19 billion in media debt.

"We may have done too much too fast," he writes. "We should have limited our transactions to the most strategic ones and not cared about the ones that had less priority."

But Messier says he is by no means the only one to blame.

"There have been converging elements and mistakes I made, but also the shift of the market that led to this situation," he said at the news conference.

Messier's publisher, Balland, had no information Friday on how sales were going but said 40,000 copies had been printed -- a sizable distribution in France.

Messier's book-tour-turned-media-offensive angered some Parisians. "He is so disconnected from the basic citizen," said Isabelle Roelhich, 35, a translator who vowed never to buy the book. "I think he is repugnant. He gave a very arrogant image of France, and I think it's a shame."

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