Suit May Halt Euro Disney In Its Mouse Tracks

In a remake of the David and Goliath story being played out here this month, Mickey Mouse is being cast unwittingly as the giant.

A tiny Paris architectural firm is going to court to force Euro Disney to return 1,500 theme park drawings the firm says it owns. At issue are accusations that the firm that did the drawings, AIA, was shortchanged $7.7 million by the contractor Euro Disney hired to be the middleman.

If AIA wins the May 15 court case, it could delay work on the site and threaten the April 1992 Euro Disneyland opening date. Euro Disney says it is confident that AIA’s case will prove unfounded, and the park will open on time.

As Walt Disney Co. reports second quarter net income down 29% and theme park operating profits for the period dipping by 33%, the company’s massive Euro Disneyland project isn’t likely to welcome a bitter and increasingly public legal battle.

AIA claims that if Euro Disney had signed a direct contract with them back in 1988, as required by French law, the current hostilities could have been avoided. No such contract exists.

Euro Disney replies that the squabble actually is between AIA and Sodeteg, a consulting engineering firm employed by Euro Disney. Sodeteg happens to be a subsidiary of the giant stateowned Thomson group.

AIA charges that Sodeteg siphoned off some of the money authorized by Euro Disney to pay the architectural firm’s bills. In December, Sodeteg informed AIA that it was being suspended from the project. Now the architects want to retrieve the drawings being used in continuing construction, which cover most of the attractions in the Magic Kingdom’s Fantasyland and Discoveryland.

The affair has raised several questions, including:

* Has Euro Disney management inadvertently broken French law by failing to sign a direct contract with AIA?

* Did Euro Disney ignore charges that the architects were being underpaid?

Sodeteg is one of the companies used by Euro Disney to manage some of the theme park bid tenders back in 1987. In August 1988, AIA’s bid for Fantasyland and Discoveryland was accepted and the company’s chief architect, Bernard Bordes, signed with Sodeteg.

AIA then set about transforming Euro Disney’s American plans to fit European norms – which included putting inches into centimeters. AIA says the plans they altered belong to it, while the originals remain the property of Euro Disney.

The alarm bells first sounded in October 1988 when Sodeteg handed over construction permit papers for AIA to sign. Under French law, only an architect can sign these papers, and without them, work could not begin.

French law also insists that the architect be directly employed by the client, in this case Euro Disney. While no such contract exists in this case, Bordes signed for the permit anyway, expecting the contractual problem would be solved later.

By early 1990, Bordes and his partner, Manuel de Andreis, had finished the working drawings for Discoveryland and Fantasyland, and AIA staff headed out to the site. At a meeting of Sodeteg, Euro Disney and AIA, Bernard Bordes was surprised to be handed a dossier that included details of his company’s bills to Euro Disney for the period from February to May 1990.

On studying these documents, Bordes found that Sodeteg had reduced the AIA bills by slashing the number of AIA hours indicated on them. However, when Sodeteg handed over the bill to Euro Disney, the number of hours had been partially bumped up again, per AIA.

“I told them they didn’t have the right to change my bill,” said Eva Toudjian, AIA administrator. When she went to Euro Disney to explain the situation, she was told that Sodeteg remained their rep and she should raise the matter with them.

In December 1990, Sodeteg instructed AIA that their “mission” on the theme park was being suspended as of March 31,1991. The last of AIA’s 14 on-site staff members had officially ceased to work by that date, but in the meantime, the architectural firm says Sodeteg and Euro Disney had approached and successfully hired away part of the former AIA crew.

Despite the AIA suspension, Sodeteg earlier this year approached the architects for a signature on a modified construction permit. AIA refused, arguing that as they were suspended and could no longer verify the plans, they couldn’t sign. They also pointed out that they had still not recieved a direct contract from Euro Disney. Toudjian demanded the return of some 1,500 drawings.

When AIA went public with the story on pubcaster Antenne-2 last month, Sodeteg sued the web and Toudjian, describing the allegations as “scandalous.” Contacted by VARIETY, Sodetag referred this reporter to Thomson, which said it could not comment on the matter as it was the subject of litigation.

Euro Disney is staying mum for similar reasons. But in a press statement, the company said, “We regret that AIA has brought to the attention of the media elements of a judicial procedure commenced at their initiative – having its origins in a financial dispute with a third party – even before the court has had the opportunity to rule on the matter. We consider the demands of AIA unjustified and without basis, and we are vigorously contesting their claims in this case.”

This leaves AIA – which is supported by the French architects’ professional body – facing two giant opponents in court. “Euro Disney liked our work, and we’re not here to go to war, but they are trying to kill us,” said an angry Bordes.

Toudjian adds that she cannot understand why Euro Disney refuses to deal directly with AIA. “If Euro Disney had written the contract directly with us in the beginning, none of this would have happened,” she laments.

Privately, Euro Disney execs admit that this may have been an oversight on their part and neither side is ruling out such a contract.

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