By JOHN HEILPRINAssociated Press
GENEVA (AP) - Zurich Insurance Group will investigate whether its former chairman put "undue pressure" on the chief financial officer before his apparent suicide, the company's new acting chairman said Friday.
The acting chairman, Tom de Swaan, said the company's board will probe the relationship between Josef Ackermann, who abruptly resigned Thursday, and CFO Pierre Wauthier, who was found dead earlier this week.
"There's no doubt that these tragic events have cast a shadow over Zurich," de Swaan said in a conference call with investors and analysts.
De Swaan said the company was informed by authorities that Wauthier left behind a note describing his relationship with Ackermann, a former CEO of Deutsche Bank.
"We were informed that such a letter exists, and we are aware of its content. And it's correct that it relates to the relationship between Pierre Wauthier and Joe Ackermann," said de Swaan.
According to a Zurich official, who has been briefed on the note by the company but spoke to The Associated Press only on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, Wauthier wrote that he disagreed with Ackermann over how the company did its financial reporting and was being pressured by Ackermann on how the numbers should be presented. Ackermann thought that Wauthier was playing down some negative aspects of the company's financial performance, the official said.
Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger of Zurich also reported there was disagreement between Ackermann and Wauthier over how the company's financial results should be presented in its reporting to investors.
While he would not detail the note's contents to the conference call, de Swaan clearly indicated that the probe into undue pressure was a direct result of what Wauthier wrote before his death. Swiss police said Tuesday that Wauthier appeared to have taken his own life.
"The board sees it as its prime responsibility to look into the question as to whether there was undue pressure placed on our CFO," said de Swaan, who had been vice-chairman of the board until this week. "Let me be absolutely clear: We, meaning the board and the management of Zurich, take corporate culture and behavior very seriously. In addition, from my own personal perspective, I'm not aware of any behavior that would be considered inappropriate in a board setting."
Ackermann, a former CEO of Deutsche Bank, stepped down because he said Wauthier's family also had leveled accusations against him - including that be bore some of the responsibility for driving Wauthier to kill himself - that could hurt the company.
Ackermann had left Deutsche Bank only last year to become chairman of Zurich. The company reported that it was struggling to meet its targets and posted an 18 percent drop in quarterly profits just two weeks before the chief financial officer's death. Over the past year, some top managers left the company, which employs about 60,000 people in more than 170 countries.
Zurich's CEO Martin Senn said the company remains profitable and the half-year figures it released this month were accurate.
"With respect to what happened in the last few days, I want to make it crystal clear that there is no link between this news and Zurich's business and financial performance," Senn said during the conference call, when he was asked whether Zurich's financial reporting was too "rosy."
"Everything we have said at the half-year stands," Senn said.
"The results, as we have reported them at the half-year and in any other reporting period, they are what they are. They are not, in any way, different than what proper, effective, prudent accounting requirements are. These results are independently reviewed by our auditors. Any comments made now in terms of bringing this incident back into the results - I consider this totally unfounded."
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