SEC Deal Doesn't End Vivendi's Legal Woes

Vivendi Universal's (V) deal to settle fraud charges with U.S. market authorities should help put a messy episode behind the company but will not end all its legal problems, analysts and investors said on Wednesday.

Late on Tuesday, the Securities and Exchange Commission (search) reached a deal under which Vivendi agreed to pay $50 million in civil penalties and former Chief Executive Jean-Marie Messier (search) agreed to pay a $1 million fine and drop his claim on a 20.5 million euro ($25 million) severance package, the SEC said.

The deal leaves Vivendi facing a class action suit in the United States, possible penalties by French market authorities and an ongoing investigation by the Paris public prosecutor.

"Financially, it's not much," said one Paris-based analyst. "At the group level it is negligible, but in terms of image, it's a good thing. They close the matter with the SEC and...they did not have to restate their accounts like Enron, which would have had a negative effect."

"They come out of it pretty well without paying too much," he added.

The SEC said the money from the settlement would go to investors harmed when the company issued false statements, made improper adjustments to earnings and failed to disclose future financial commitments between December 2000 and July 2002.

Messier was forced out as Vivendi chief executive last year after an expansion spree that saddled it with a crushing debt and brought it close to collapse.

Neither Messier nor Vivendi, whose holdings include the world's biggest music company, France's number two cell phone operator and the country's leading pay-TV firm, admitted nor denied the SEC charges.

But settlement with U.S. market authorities was a big step toward ending the high-profile battle between Messier and the company he transformed from a staid water utility to an international media and telecoms conglomerate.

The fight has captivated France, with public disgust aimed at Messier for having tried to keep his severance package, which is enormous by the country's standards, despite promising never to seek such a payment, nearly bankrupting Vivendi and causing a massive loss of shareholder value.

Financial analysts said the settlement was a net positive, but noted the possible legal action the company still faced. They said many investors had already priced in a deal.

Vivendi shares were up 1.8 percent at 19.19 in morning trading, outperforming the CAC-40 index (search) of French blue-chip shares and the DJ Stoxx index (search) of European media companies.

Small shareholders also welcomed the deal, but said the score was not settled.

"Morality has been flouted," said long-time shareholder activist Colette Neuville, whose ADAM minority shareholder defense group is the lead plaintiff in the U.S. class action suit.

"Holiday cheer is not relevant in this matter," she said. "This was a battle where everyone defended their interests as best they could and tried to find a solution to avoid a conflict that could have forced them to reveal embarrassing information."

"If Jean-Marie Messier is giving up his severance, no doubt it is to avoid paying more in another situation. Don't think he was overcome by grace," she said.

Messier had accepted the payment when he left, but Vivendi refused to pay and vowed Messier would get nothing.

As part of the SEC settlement, Messier was barred from holding an officer or director position at a U.S. public company for 10 years and Vivendi agreed to pay a portion of Messier's legal fees.