Wendel CEO defends execs in legal spat

PARIS, June 4 Mon Jun 4, 2012 1:32pm EDT

PARIS, June 4 (Reuters) - Wendel's chief executive rejected a series of accusations against himself, the French investment group's chairman and a former CEO, saying he had filed a countersuit for false claims, as he sought to reassure investors at its annual meeting.

CEO Frederic Lemoine was responding on Monday to a complaint, filed by a former executive in February and revealed last week by Liberation newspaper, alleging misuse of company assets, insider trading and share price manipulation.

"Many of you have been shocked like me by the allegations and the attacks you have been able to read in the newspapers," Lemoine told shareholders. "I will not let this person tarnish our company's image without responding."

"Whereas Wendel is committed to acting with transparency, good governance, social and environmental responsibility, some are seeking to tarnish its image and discredit certain managers through unremitting, self-interested and personal attacks," Lemoine added.

An earlier court case over the so-called Solfur affair, in which 14 company managers bought 4.7 percent of the group's capital for 324 million euros ($405 million) under a complex deal in 2007, had been dismissed last year by the Paris court of appeal.

But last Wednesday, Liberation reported that a new complaint had been filed by former Wendel legal head Arnaud Descleves evoking "financial acrobatics" by Chairman Ernest-Antoine Seilliere and former CEO Jean-Bernard Lafonta as part of the Solfur profit-sharing scheme the company had set up in 2004.

From 2004 to 2007, executives had acquired Wendel shares as they soared to around 142 euros, but were forbidden to sell them until October 2008 due to the privileged information they had about Wendel's gradual building of its stake in Saint-Gobain .

The complaint alleges, however, that Lafonta and Seilliere did not respect the "lock-up" and proceeded to sell their shares as they anticipated a fall in Saint-Gobain's share price during the subprime crisis.

By March 2009, Wendel's shares had collapsed to around 16 euros and Lafonta was forced out by shareholders.

The complaint, posted on Les Echos' website, claims Lafonta sold Wendel shares for 40 million euros in 2007 without declaring the sale and that Seilliere also sold 153,000 shares after initially criticising Lafonta.

Wendel has holdings in several European industrial companies including Stahl and Legrand. It also owns more than 50 percent of inspection company Bureau Veritas. ($1 = 0.8003 euros) (Reporting by Alice Cannet; Editing by Richard Chang)