Inside Move: Messier passes hat

Ex-chief accuses conglom of not respecting commitments

This article was updated at 7:52p.m.

PARIS — Former Vivendi Universal topper Jean-Marie Messier said Wednesday he is desperate for his disputed e20.5 million ($23 million) severance pay because he’s broke.

“I was in debt when I left VU, and I don’t have any savings left,” he told a Gallic parliamentary commission probing corporate governance. “I mortgaged my house in Paris. It’s the reality. I need it.”

Messier was ostensibly invited to give information on the alleged overinflated pay of French toppers. But, either “the commission has a sense of humor,” as daily paper Liberation succinctly put it, or — as his comments imply — Messier invited himself to argue for his golden parachute.

He accused the conglom of not respecting any of its commitments to him, adding, “I am outraged by the lies that have surrounded this story of severance for a year.”

However, Messier does seem ready to negotiate, saying that if there was a mediation in France, he was ready to take constructive steps to find a solution.

Messier’s appearance comes just days after the brouhaha over his contested severance package resurfaced. Viv U issued a press release threatening legal actions against “the authors of any false statements” insinuating that current topper Jean-Rene Fourtou or the board had secretly agreed to the golden parachute or were involved in greenlighting the termination agreement.

A Paris court said Monday that a suit filed by Viv U against Messier contesting the payment would be heard Dec. 8. The Paris commercial court judge said he would hear arguments on whether Paris had any jurisdiction in a case already ruled on in the U.S.

The parliamentary commission already has interviewed several high-ranking businessmen on the subject of Gallic toppers’ pay, now the highest in Europe, according to a recent survey. These include the so-called godfather of French capitalism and Viv U director Claude Bebear.

Among the questions the commission posed to Bebear was how he justified granting Fourtou a million stock options when he became CEO last year as the conglom was on the brink of financial disaster due to debt accrued by Messier.

Fourtou’s options, granted at a low share price, would have made the prexy $6 million if he had exercised them at Tuesday’s closing price.

Pascal Clement, who is heading the commission, wants to bring pay packages, especially in the case of stock options, back in line with the performance of Gallic enterprises.

For his part, Messier can expect to face some embarrassing questions by the commission. “Messier was preposterous to have a salary so completely out of line with the reality of his company’s results,” Clement said in an interview in the French press, indicating that Messier’s cause may not be met with the warmest reception.

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