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"That Messier could ask for and obtain $23 million through a U.S. contract not approved by the board is indecent when you think of his responsibility for the extremely serious financial situation in which Vivendi Universal found itself last summer."
——VU Chief Jean Rene Fourtou
MONEY MAN MESSIER
Ousted Vivendi Universal Chief to Get $23.4 Mil in Severance; Move May Derail Sales Talks
Former Vivendi Universal CEO Jean-Marie Messier won a ruling yesterday from a three-member arbitration panel in New York forcing his former employer to pay him the $23.4 million in severance that he said he had been granted before his departure last year.

According to numerous published reports, Vivendi's new chief, Jean Rene Fourtou, swore he wouldn't pay anything to Messier after his departure. However, VU has been ordered by an arbitration panel to live up to a severance agreement signed just before Messier was booted last summer.

Vivendi execs will try to overturn the arbitrators' decision. Vivendi contends that its board never voted to approve Messier's severance package. The Board of Directors today confirmed that VU would examine all available legal actions, both in France and the United States to void Messier's "so-called termination agreement."

The board, which had been scheduled to meet today to discuss the auctioning off of its United States entertainment assets, will now likely have to talk about the huge pay out. VU executives are now expected to focus on the French media group's defense against Messier after the American Arbitration Assn., an independent disputes tribunal in New York, upheld Messier’s right to the pay off.

"That Messier could ask for and obtain $23 million through a U.S. contract not approved by the board is indecent when you think of his responsibility for the extremely serious financial situation in which Vivendi Universal found itself last summer," Fourtou said.

Messier was the architect of his former company’s $34 billion acquisition of Seagram and its Universal music and film businesses in 2000, his attempt to become a media mogul by building a global media empire that rivaled AOL Time Warner and Walt Disney.

Fourtou had hoped to use today’s meeting to focus on proposals from six US-based groups to take over VU’s film, TV and theme park businesses, in a bid to pay off in excess of $10 million of its billions of debt built up during Messier's acquisitive tenure.

No decision is expected from Tuesday's meeting, although it had been suggested that the meeting could result in a shortlist being drawn up.

Liberty Media is expected to go through to the next round, while bids from Edgar Bronfman Jr. and Metro-Goldwyn Mayer were boosted when MGM raised $500 million by selling minority cable stakes to Cablevision Systems, Bronfman's bidding partner (see related rumor mill item).

Viacom and NBC, the media arm of General Electric, are more reluctant bidders, with Viacom stating interest solely in Vivendi's cable TV assets and NBC looking for a strategic partnership with Vivendi.

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