PARIS (Reuters) - Former Vivendi chief executive Jean-Marie Messier will appeal after being found guilty on Friday of embezzlement and divulging misleading information as head of Europe’s biggest entertainment company.
Fellow defendant Edgar Bronfman Jr, a Canadian billionaire and chief executive of Warner Music Group who was vice chairman of Vivendi’s board at the time, is also to appeal against his verdict, which came with a 15-month suspended sentence and 5 million euro ($6.8 million) fine for insider trading.
“I always managed this group with integrity, and that is why this sentence is deeply unfair. I want to defend not only my honor but I have to set the record straight,” Messier said in a written statement.
The court handed a three-year suspended sentence to Messier, a flamboyant business leader who led Vivendi a decade ago during the heady days of the Internet bubble and became a symbol of corporate hubris when he nearly bankrupted the former utilities group with a massive acquisition spree.
Messier, 54, who escaped a charge of manipulating share prices, was also fined 150,000 euros ($203,000).
His lawyer, Pierre Haik, said Messier would appeal against the verdict, which he said was “incomprehensible and goes against the law.” Bronfman’s lawyer also said he would appeal.
Messier’s former lieutenant and Vivendi’s former chief financial officer Guillaume Hannezo was given a 15-month suspended sentence, and another ex-Vivendi executive Eric Licoys was handed a six-month suspended sentence.
Didier Cornardeau, who represented small shareholders in the trial, welcomed the court’s ruling.
“Business leaders who commit crimes must be heavily sanctioned. Mr Messier, who is sentenced today, has destroyed Vivendi Universal,” he said.
Vivendi itself is not accused of wrongdoing under French criminal law.
The court examined evidence on how the executives communicated to the media and markets on the state of Vivendi’s finances, its debt and cash position from 2000 to 2002.
It also examined the legality of a massive share buyback Vivendi undertook on the New York stock market in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks to stem a steep share price drop.
Market regulators in the United States and France have already sanctioned Messier, Hannezo and Vivendi for misleading financial communication during the period in question. Messier was hit with more than $1.5 million in fines and Vivendi with more than $50 million, though they did not admit to wrongdoing.
In a separate U.S. class-action suit against Vivendi, a jury found the company liable in January 2010 for misleading investors about its financial conditions from October 2000 to August 2004.
That ruling has not been confirmed by a judge, however, and the company has appealed.
(Reporting by Thierry Leveque; Writing by Leigh Thomas; Editing by Mike Nesbit and Will Waterman)