Ex-Vivendi chief on trial for fraud

He's charged with misleading investors about company's health

PARIS — Jean-Marie Messier, who transformed a water company into media giant Vivendi Universal, went on trial in Paris on Wednesday on charges he misled investors about the company’s health as it took on billions of dollars of debt and neared bankruptcy.

Messier is on trial with six others, including Edgar Bronfman Jr., a former top Vivendi exec and now CEO of Warner Music Group. Messier, who topped the company from 1996 to 2002, could face up to five years in prison and e350,000 ($428,000) in fines if convicted.

In the courtroom, Messier showed contrition and admitted to mistakes — but insisted that his strategic decisions were made in the interest of the company. “Did we make errors in strategy? Yes, without a doubt. As director, I take responsibility for them,” he said, acknowledging a failure to anticipate technological troubles in the media world.

The trial is Act Two in the courtroom drama for Vivendi, after a similar trial in New York. In January, the U.S. District Court in Manhattan ruled against Vivendi SA and in favor of U.S. and European shareholders who said the group lied about its shaky finances. The court ruled that Messier was not liable.

In the French case, which began in 2002, Vivendi SA is one of the plaintiffs, alongside shareholders. Investigators looked into shareholder accusations that the company published false balance sheets for fiscal years 2000 and 2001 and issued deceptive information about its forecasts.

Vivendi shares lost more than 80% of their value as the company ran up about $40 billion in debt in acquisitions including the Universal film studios and music label, and pay TV station Canal Plus.

After Messier left, Vivendi Universal was forced to sell many of its businesses, including Universal.

The trial is scheduled to run through June 25.

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