Media tycoon trial is like real-life soap opera

Mr Sumner Redstone in a 2012 photo. He has not been seen in public since his 92nd birthday last May.
Mr Sumner Redstone in a 2012 photo. He has not been seen in public since his 92nd birthday last May.PHOTO: REUTERS

Sumner Redstone, 92, planned to leave $67million to his long-time companion but when she is removed from his will, she goes to court to challenge his mental competence

NEW YORK • Media mogul Sumner M. Redstone was in the middle of a bitter divorce from his wife of 52 years in 2000 when he was spotted with a decades-younger woman at the New York premiere of the Paramount movie What Women Want.

His companion was Ms Manuela Herzer, then a 36-year-old single mother of three. The pair met the previous year and they dated for about two years. When he asked her to marry him in 2000, she declined.

Yet she remained in the orbit of his life as a friend, even as he went through another marriage and a series of girlfriends. He lavished gifts, real estate and money on her - more than US$70 million (S$95 million) in cash and other assets since 2009. He named her a beneficiary of his trust, listing her as "family". Upon his death, he planned to leave her US$50 million and his US$20-million Los Angeles mansion, according to court filings.

Now she is challenging his mental competence in a salacious lawsuit she filed in November, not long after she was suddenly ejected from his life and his home, where she had maintained a residence for about two years. She was also removed from his will and from a directive that would have given her supervision of his health care.

The legal battle, filled with embarrassing claims about his sexual desires, incontinence and demands to eat steak while on a feeding tube, is scheduled for trial starting yesterday in Los Angeles County Superior Court, exactly three weeks before his 93rd birthday.

This real-life soap opera has captivated both Hollywood and Wall Street. While the dispute concerns Mr Redstone's personal affairs, the outcome could have major implications for his US$42-billion media empire, which includes two of the world's largest entertainment companies, Viacom and CBS, both still controlled by him.

A ruling by Judge David J. Cowan that Mr Redstone is not competent would set off a contentious battle for power across his businesses.

At the centre of it all is Ms Herzer, now 51, who claims in the suit that Mr Redstone was under the undue influence of a nurse and his daughter, Ms Shari Redstone, when he changed his health care plan.

Is Ms Herzer a loving friend, whom he trusted more than his own family? Or are her claims an invasion of privacy, motivated by greed?

Those questions will set the backdrop for the trial as the court is expected to hear video testimony from Mr Redstone, as well as from his daughter, doctors and nurses; Ms Herzer; and Mr Philippe Dauman, the chief executive of Viacom.

The two sides came close to reaching a settlement last month but talks hit a snag. Since then, hurried trial preparations have been underway. The trial is scheduled to last five days. The first witness yesterday is expected to be Mr Redstone, in video testimony recorded on Thursday. He has not been seen in public since his 92nd birthday last May and has suffered minor strokes that have left him with a severe speech impediment.

One person who has interacted regularly with him, and who asked not to be identified because the conversations with Redstone were private, said that while it was difficult to understand him initially, people who become familiar with his speech patterns could make out what he was saying, particularly when he responded to yes or no questions, spoke in shorter phrases or became angry.

Next on the witness list is Dr Stephen L. Read, a psychiatrist who conducted a medical examination of Mr Redstone in late January. He is expected to testify that Mr Redstone "did not fully understand and appreciate the consequences" of removing Ms Herzer from the health care directive, according to court documents filed by her lawyers on Thursday.

Lawyers for Mr Redstone asserted in a separate court filing on Thursday that Dr Read's report was manipulated by Mr Pierce O'Donnell, a lawyer for Ms Herzer.

Then comes Ms Keryn Redstone, Mr Redstone's granddaughter, who has formed an alliance with Ms Herzer that pits her against her aunt, Shari. In a recent declaration, she described her grandfather as a "prisoner in his own home". She also claimed that she and her grandfather had been threatened by her aunt. Ms Shari Redstone has called the claims false.

New court documents filed on Thursday by lawyers for Mr Redstone assert that Ms Herzer exploited her relationship with him for financial gain, saying that between last August and mid-October she charged more than US$265,000 to his American Express card. In response, her lawyers said he had been generous to many people in his life, including her.

She was introduced to him by one of his old friends in 1999, about five years after her bitter divorce from Mr Eric Chamchoum, a Nigerian- born telecommunications executive who is part of a dynastic Lebanese family. She was born in Buenos Aires. Her family moved to Miami when she was a child.

Over the years, she has listed her occupation in public records as homemaker, producer and self- employed. She owns property in California, New York and Paris and is also listed as the principal officer of the Herzer Foundation, dedicated to the prevention of childhood diseases and child abuse.

In early 2013, she moved into Mr Redstone's mansion at his request, she said in court filings. She helped him make health-care decisions along with his girlfriend at the time, Ms Sydney Holland. In August last yer, Ms Holland was ejected from the home after a confession of infidelity. On Oct 12, Ms Herzer was removed from the home. She has said she was told by his lawyers only that she had "lied" to him.

The papers filed by his side said the lies involved Ms Herzer obstructing Mr Redstone's relationship with another woman as well as her fabrication of a letter she said was from Ms Holland.

Her lawyers said that they will show during the trial that the allegations have no merit.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 07, 2016, with the headline 'Media tycoon trial is like real-life soap opera'. Print Edition | Subscribe