Vivendi board meets to discuss suspected piracy at annual meeting

Monday, April 29th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PARIS (Dow Jones/AP) _ Media giant Vivendi Universal's board met Monday to discuss evidence that hackers tampered with the computer voting system at a shareholders' gathering last week, and to set a date for a new meeting.

Vivendi also plans to file a complaint Monday in response to the suspected piracy. In a statement Sunday, the company said it would freeze funds earmarked for its 2001 dividend payment while the investigation was underway.

The company had initially planned to pay a total dividend of 1.09 billion euros (dlrs 984 million), or a payout of 1 euro (dlrs .903) per share, on May 13.

News about the suspected hacking was badly timed for the company, coming amid a recent share price slump, controversy over the firing of the head of Vivendi's pay-TV unit Canal Plus, and growing doubts about Chief Executive Jean-Marie Messier's strategy.

Some shareholders will join Vivendi's legal action, the statement said, making no mention of possible suspects. French law allows people to lodge complaints without naming a suspect.

Suspicions were aroused when routine checks showed an uncommonly high abstention rate at Wednesday's meeting. Vivendi said it found no bugs in voting equipment and learned from shareholders that the abstention rate didn't match up with votes that had been cast.

The company suggested that hackers with a detailed knowledge of voting procedure and a device capable of transmitting and receiving electronic data could have been responsible.

Vivendi said its board would on Monday set a date for a new shareholders' meeting for early June so new votes can be cast on 19 resolutions _ including a much-contested plan to award stock options to top executives. The proposal was shot down at the shareholders' meeting.

The other rejected resolution asked shareholders to relinquish preferential rights on future sales of real estate.

The company announced on Friday that it found irregularities in Internet voting by shareholders two days earlier at Vivendi's annual meeting, and said piracy was probably to blame.

During the tumultuous shareholder meeting Wednesday, protesters demanded the resignation of Vivendi chief executive Jean-Marie Messier and a few people even booed and whistled as he addressed shareholders.

On Sunday, Vivendi provided more details about the voting problem, saying votes from large shareholders were counted systematically as abstentions.

The company said it checked with shareholders such as glass and building-materials group Saint Gobain and banks Societe Generale, Credit Agricole and BNP Paribas. Votes registered by those companies were not in line with those that had been cast, Vivendi said.