WPP bars investor with legal questions from AGM

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The Independent Online

A shareholder who planned to ask potentially embarrassing questions about WPP's ongoing legal battle in Italy was prevented from entering the advertising company's annual meeting, it emerged yesterday.

John Fiorilla, who is based in the US and Italy, travelled to the event at Claridge's hotel in London on Tuesday but was turned away and, he claims, threatened with arrest. He planned to ask a series of critical questions about WPP's performance and in particular the conduct of the company's chief executive, Sir Martin Sorrell.

Earlier this year, WPP sacked its country manager in Italy, Marco Benatti, over allegations that he had a secret interest in a company that WPP acquired in Italy in 2002. It has also emerged that Sir Martin has had a personal relationship with WPP's chief operating officer in Italy, Daniella Weber. WPP is suing Mr Benatti in London and Mr Benatti is counter-suing in Italy.

Among the questions that Mr Fiorilla had prepared to put to the AGM was: "Many of these legal issues seem to be very personal for Sir Martin Sorrell. Are we sure that it should be WPP who bears the burden of the costs of these battles?"

Mr Fiorilla, whose failure to get into the annual meeting was first reported in the New York Post, owns 100 American Depository Receipts - the equivalent of shares - in WPP.

He had not informed WPP what questions he would ask. He bought the ADRs through Lehman Brothers, who also issued a proxy form to him.

According to Mr Fiorilla, WPP appeared to be expecting him when he arrived at Claridge's and he said he was told by company officials that his documentation was not valid.

He claimed that, after that, "Mr Simon Johnson, a Claridge's security officer, along with a colleague, arrived. I was told by Mr Johnson that because the WPP shareholders' meeting was a private function and I did not properly belong, I was trespassing and would most likely be arrested by the police".

Mr Fiorilla had a series of other awkward questions lined up. These included: "Is it not time for Sir Martin Sorrell to finally designate a successor and give shareholders the possibility to know the name of his successor? Can we fix a date to decide this?"

According to WPP, Mr Fiorilla was offered the chance to submit questions in writing instead, which would receive a written response in due course.

The company added that it was right to turn away Mr Fiorilla. It said: "Citibank [the US depository through which all ADRs are held] have confirmed that Mr Fiorilla was not a registered holder of ADRs at the record date (which determines who can vote and attend the meeting and speak under the ADR depository agreement) - therefore Mr Fiorilla was correctly advised that he was not on our register."

Mr Fiorilla said he knew Mr Benatti from social circles in Milan.

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