Fraud squad raids Vivendi offices

John Lichfield
Friday 13 December 2002 01:00

Fraud squad detectives raided the offices of Vivendi Universal in Paris yesterday and the homes of its deposed chief executive, Jean-Marie Messier, as part of an investigation into alleged irregularities in the company's accounts.

The police, acting on the instructions of three investigating magistrates, were said to be searching, among other things, for copies of an unpublished internal audit conducted by Vivendi after M. Messier was fired in July.

The investigation follows a complaint from a small French shareholders' association that investors were misled into buying or holding Vivendi shares by false presentations of the company's financial position and prospects while M. Messier was in charge.

M. Messier, who is 46 today, made a series of audacious acquisitions costing €80bn (£52bn) over two years, transforming Vivendi from a water and sewage treatment company into one of the world's largest media and telecommunications empires. However, the company's share price collapsed from €150 to €13.9 after the markets grew alarmed by Vivendi's €20bn mountain of debt.

In October, the French public prosecutor opened an investigation against "x", or persons unknown, for the "publication of false balance sheets for the years ending 31 December 2000 and 31 December 2001" and "publishing false or misleading information on the prospects of Vivendi Universal for the years 2001 and 2002".

The new Vivendi management has declared itself to be a "civil party" to this investigation, meaning it also regards the company as a victim of the alleged false accounts.

Vivendi officials said yesterday that they were co-operating fully with the police and magistrates but a spokesman for the small shareholders' group, Didier Cornardeau, said he believed the police were looking for an unpublished, internal audit conducted after M. Messier lost his job. He said that the raids implied that the judges believed that there was information that Vivendi had not supplied voluntarily to the investigation.

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