Espinasse to offer franc perspective

Embattled Vivendi U taps finance deputy

Vivendi Universal announced Wednesday a restructuring of its finance department, naming Hubert Joly deputy chief financial officer reporting to chief financial officer Jaques Espinasse. Joly was formerly CEO of Vivendi Universal Games, responsible for the integration of Viv U’s North American operations.

Move comes as Vivendi faces shareholder lawsuits, civil and criminal probes on both sides of the Atlantic and, most recently, a messy tiff over financial disclosures regarding stock sales by former chairman-CEO Jean-Marie Messier. The issue could become a major headache for the French conglom as angry investors and avid regulators scour Viv U’s books for proof of wrongdoing.

Sticky stock sale

Vivendi revealed in its preliminary annual report last week that Messier sold stock in the company at about the time its financial situation started to deteriorate — in late 2001 and early 2002. The trouble is, Vivendi had said in a previous filing that none of its execs sold shares at that time. Vivendi last week acknowledged a mistake, but said the original info was based on a declaration supplied by Messier.

The former Viv U topper still denies he sold shares. But a Viv U spokesman said Wednesday the company “has confirmed that the (latest) figures that were issued come from a bank, which was holding the registered shares on behalf of Mr. Messier. Those figures supplied for 2001 and 2002 were confirmed by the bank,” said to be BPN Paribas.

A person familiar with the issue indicated a time lag may be behind the miscommunication. That is, the bank, which holds the shares on Messier’s behalf, may not have recorded an exercise of stock options in late 2001 in time for the subsequent filing.

Quality control

Back on the finance front, Viv U said Joly’s mandate is to improve “the quality and speed of internal and external financial and operations reporting, and (to challenge) the performance of the business units.”

He will oversee financial planning and budgets and assume the role of controller now held by John Luczycki, who returns to New York in July to manage ongoing projects for the company.

Joly will be flanked by deputy chief financial officer Dominique Gilbert, who handles financial, treasury, and tax and risk-management issues. Daniel Scolan, exec VP of investor relations, and Sandrine Dufour, VP of internal audit and special projects, will both report directly to Espinasse.

Separately, Viv U said it has asked a judge in New York to consolidate a recent lawsuit against the company by John Malone’s Liberty Media into a pooled class-action shareholder suit with other plaintiffs.

Vivendi shares dropped 4.86% in New York to $14.08.

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