* Former Vivendi chief takes stand as defense starts
* Messier denies doing anything fraudulent
By Grant McCool
NEW YORK, Nov 20 (Reuters) - Former Vivendi CEO Jean-Marie Messier told a U.S. jury he “never, never, never” committed fraud as he took the stand on Friday in a civil trial pitting international shareholders against the French conglomerate and former top executives.
Messier, the first defense witness in the securities fraud trial that opened six weeks ago, compared the strategy he was trying to implement for Vivendi (VIV.PA) between 2000 and 2002 with that of the iPhone.
He said in Manhattan federal court that Vivendi was essentially developing “technologies of the future to bring all entertainment to any screen, anywhere, anytime.”
A class-action lawsuit, filed in 2002, accuses the company, Messier and former Chief Financial Officer Guillaume Hannezo of hiding Vivendi’s true financial condition before a $46 billion three-way merger with Seagram Co and Canal Plus.
“Some of my management decisions turned wrong, but fraud? Never, never, never,” Messier, dressed in a gray suit, told the jury in a trial expected to last another month.
He acknowledged that it was in Vivendi’s interests for him to resign at the end of June 2002, and that the company’s share price dropped sharply in 2001 and 2002. He said he felt “sad” for investors and “really hurt” by the allegations against him.
In opening statements on Oct. 6, shareholders’ lawyer Arthur Abbey told the jury that “a wide-ranging group” of investors who bought Vivendi stock between October 2000 and August 2002 were deliberately misled by Messier and Hannezo at a time when “Vivendi’s debt soared out of control.”
The shareholders are seeking unspecified damages.
Messier said the risks of the company’s strategy were disclosed to the public and that apart from business mistakes, there were other reasons that Vivendi ran into financial trouble.
“The vision was right but we were too early,” he said.
Messier also said that in 2001 and 2002, events such as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the bursting of the dot-com bubble and the bankruptcies of Enron and WorldCom contributed to the problems because “we did not foresee any of them.”
Messier said an allegation that he engineered investor losses was “a blatant lie.”
While acknowledging that he made business mistakes, he denied concealing liquidity problems, misstating earnings or encouraging others to do so, or pursuing personal wealth to the detriment of the company.
Messier told the court that after a “long, tough period” following his departure from Vivendi, he now headed up Messier Partners, advising companies and institutions on business strategy. One of his projects is helping countries in Africa develop digital technology.
The case is In re Vivendi Universal, S.A. Securities Litigation 02-05571 in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York (Manhattan) (Reporting by Grant McCool; editing by John Wallace)