- Judge calls media mogul's testimony `strong evidence'
- Control of Viacom, CBS holdings could depend on outcome
Sumner Redstone, his speech unsteady and weakened by age, was blunt. His affection for Manuela Herzer, the woman he once called the love of his life, had curdled into hatred.
The trial to determine whether the media mogul is mentally competent started Friday, his private soap opera playing out in a courtroom as a judge watched videotaped testimony from the billionaire, who spoke haltingly and had trouble enunciating -- but came off loud, clear and profane in declaring he wants nothing to do with the ex-girlfriend challenging his abilities.
Redstone, 92, has such difficulty communicating that he was assisted in his testimony by a translator who at one point asked that his dentures be adjusted so he could be better understood. He was questioned for 18 minutes, and was most articulate when asked about Herzer, using obscenities to describe her. “I hate her,” he said, according to a transcript. “I want Manuela out of my life.” And that seemed to impress Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David Cowan, who called it “strong evidence.”
“I want to know why this testimony should not be respected,” Cowan said to Herzer’s attorney, Pierce O’Donnell. “Your burden is a hard one.”
Herzer claims Redstone, the controlling shareholder of CBS Corp. and Viacom Inc., wasn’t mentally capable in October, when he kicked her out of his mansion and ended her oversight of his medical care. The trial could last several days, shining fresh light on Redstone’s fraught relations with his family and the tens of millions he lavished upon Herzer and other romantic partners.
Redstone “tragically is no longer capable of managing his own affairs,” O’Donnell said in a statement accompanying a transcript of the billionaire’s deposition.
The judge said that on Monday he would consider a request by Redstone’s lawyers to dismiss the case. “I haven’t had time to think it through, and that’s why I’m not going to make a decision today,” he said, telling lawyers from both sides that he would request briefings from them over the weekend. “I need to have evidence that shows that he doesn’t know what he’s saying” on the videotape.
The lawsuit that Herzer, 52, filed in November seeks to have her reinstated as the person with sole control to make end-of-life care decisions for him. A ruling in her favor could cost Redstone control of his stakes in Viacom and CBS, media giants worth $42 billion.
He owns majority voting rights through a family holding company, National Amusements Inc. If he were to be declared incompetent by the judge it could set in motion a chain of events where control of that company would be taken over by seven trustees, among them his daughter Shari Redstone and Viacom Chief Executive Officer Philippe Dauman.
In the recorded testimony, which the judge watched after clearing the courtroom of reporters and spectators, Redstone said Herzer had stolen money from him and lied to him. His testimony was taken Thursday at his home, with questions posed by one of his lawyers, Gabrielle Vidal, and O’Donnell. Redstone didn’t answer some, and often had to be prodded to speak more loudly or more slowly by the interpreter. At some points, according to the transcript, he couldn’t form a word and was asked to point to letters to spell them out. Shown a photo of himself and Herzer and asked when it was taken, he said, “Who cares?”
His lawyers said in a court filing that in the weeks before she was evicted, she spent more than $200,000 using Redstone’s American Express card and had him sign for $40,000 in cash delivered to his house. They said she also executed a $5 million grant agreement with Redstone for the foundation she runs.
In all, the lawyers said, Redstone spent about $150 million on Herzer and another former girlfriend, Sydney Holland, who also had briefly been his health-care agent. They exercised “virtually unfettered” control over his money, according to the lawyers. Redstone is worth about $4.5 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. He plans to seek to recover the $150 million from the two, according to a person familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified.
After a Redstone lawyer evicted Herzer from the mansion in the gated Beverly Hills community, she was replaced as health-care agent by Dauman and taken out of Redstone’s estate plan; she had been in line to receive $50 million upon Redstone’s death, along with his residence, valued at $20 million. Recently, Shari Redstone assumed the role of health-care agent for her father, with the authority over whether, for instance, he should be fed or hydrated if he himself can no longer make his desires known.
The witnesses scheduled to testify about Redstone’s mental health and the alleged plotting and scheming by those around him include ex-girlfriends, geriatric psychiatrists and his nurses. Others will include Shari Redstone, with whom he has had a rocky relationship, and a granddaughter who claims Redstone needs court protection from his daughter.
In his opening argument, O’Donnell said Shari had orchestrated a palace coup to get rid of Herzer, surrounding Redstone in “a circle of deceit” with nurses and staff who spied on Shari’s behalf. In a statement Friday, Shari Redstone called that “total fiction with no factual basis.”
O’Donnell said Redstone was “unable to answer the simplest questions” during his testimony. “It was anguishing to watch and painful to hear.”
Robert Klieger, an attorney for Redstone, said in his opening remarks that his client doesn’t tolerate lies and needs to trust the people around him. Nobody questioned Redstone’s mental capacity when he threw Holland, the other former girlfriend, out of his house in August and removed her from his health-care directive, Klieger said.
According to Klieger, Herzer lied to Redstone about Holland and a third woman, Terry Holbrook. She tricked him into leaving voicemails on her number when he thought he was calling Holbrook and created fake letters from Holland. “He obsesses about women,” Klieger said.
Another witness Friday, Stephen Read, a physician hired by Herzer to examine Redstone, told the judge that Redstone displays symptoms of dementia. Read said Redstone bet with family members on televised sports games and didn’t realize they were recorded, and that the others let him win. Read described his personality: “Anger emerges quickly and readily, short-circuiting everything else.”
He said Redstone didn’t have the mental capacity to understand the consequences of his actions when he removed Herzer as his health-care agent. Redstone told him during the exam that Herzer stole $40 million but he wasn’t able to elaborate, Read said, and acknowledged his money was managed by responsible people in Boston.
Joseph Octaviano, one of Redstone’s nurses, testified that he kept Shari Redstone secretly informed about what was going on at her father’s house and he knew she wanted to use the information to get Herzer thrown out.
The staff hugged and high-fived each other after Herzer was evicted, Octaviano said.
The case is In re Advance Health Care Directive of Sumner M. Redstone, BP168725, Los Angeles County Superior Court.