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Holes in Messier’s parachute

Fourtou may have backed payout

PARIS — The drama over former Vivendi Universal topper Jean-Marie Messier’s controversial severance package continued Friday as reports surfaced claiming that current topper Jean-Rene Fourtou and several board members had backed the e20.5 million ($23 million) golden parachute.

Conglom denied Friday night that Fourtou had taken part in negotiating the termination agreement. It said he had consistently opposed it, adding that Viv U and the topper “reserve the right to take legal action against the authors of any false statements.”

The statement continued: “With the full support of the board of directors of Vivendi Universal, (Fourtou) has brought a lawsuit seeking the cancellation of the termination agreement and to have the people who signed it held responsible.”

Press release underlines the trouble the company is taking to distance Fourtou — who has publicly called the severance sum “scandalous” — and current board members from the 2002 agreement that has angered shareholders and shocked analysts.

Fourtou, board members Edgar J. Bronfman and Henri Lachmann and ex-board member Marc Vienot are to be subpoenaed in Paris today by the lawyer of former Viv U chief operating officer Eric Licoys in a case relating to Messier’s severance package.

Viv U has sued Messier and Licoys, who allegedly signed off on the severance package, claiming that they did not follow proper internal procedure when negotiating the termination agreement.

According to several reports, however, board members and Fourtou, who at the time had been chosen as Messier’s successor but had yet to be instated on the board, had agreed to the sum Messier demanded as long as it could be handled discretely so as not to further tarnish Viv U’s already troubled image.

“In fact, everyone was agreed on paying the severance, but it had to stay secret,” former board member Jacques Friedman told a Manhattan arbitration panel, according to a report in French daily Le Monde. Friedman has denied the report.

Messier said in a legal deposition that, following his resignation, Fourtou told him, “I will be happy to pay. I don’t mind the figure,” according to Dow Jones. But Fourtou allegedly told the ex-topper that he wanted approval from “someone outside the board” because he feared “journalists’ reactions,” according to the report.

When Viv U didn’t pay the $23 million golden parachute, the case went to arbitration. In June, a panel ordered Viv U to honor the contract.

Then, in another twist, the Securities & Exchange Commission filed suit in September in U.S. District Court in New York to prevent Viv U from making the payout. In its suit the SEC requested that the severance award be placed in escrow under the court’s supervision during a commission investigation.

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