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This story first appeared in the Nov. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
The mental competency of Sumner Redstone could be openly challenged as his longtime companion Manuela Herzer — who was ejected from Redstone’s life in October — might be set to square off against the frail 92-year-old Viacom and CBS executive chairman’s family, which recently has taken a leading role in his care.
Herzer, who a source says was Redstone’s health care agent until his daughter, Shari, and her family asserted themselves in his life in September, has retained Pierce O’Donnell, the combative litigator who represented Donald Sterling’s wife, Shelly, in her successful battle to have Sterling declared incompetent, leading to a $2 billion sale of the L.A. Clippers in 2014.
While O’Donnell declined to tell THR whether Herzer will seek to reassert herself as the primary person in charge of Redstone’s care, “we are monitoring this fluid situation on a daily basis,” he says. A court filing and public showdown could shine a light on Redstone’s mental capacity, a subject of much fascination and speculation in Hollywood, as well as the extent to which Herzer and Sydney Holland, Redstone’s former girlfriend (who also recently was cut off from the mogul), had been managing his affairs in recent years.
The stakes are high for Viacom and CBS, which together are valued at about $44 billion. The fitness of Redstone to function as executive chairman of the media companies he controls has come into sharper focus in recent weeks. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune and Forbes have questioned his health and capacity to lead.
A source close to Herzer, 51, who had been involved with Redstone for 18 years, says she saw a sudden, serious decline in his mental state in the weeks before she was banished from his Beverly Park mansion in October. “It is now clear to the person who is closest to [Redstone] that, sadly, he is in twilight mentally,” Herzer’s associate tells THR. (Herzer declined comment beyond her lawyer’s statement.) According to this person, Redstone “clearly expressed multiple times that he wanted her to be his protector and caregiver.”
Viacom declined comment on Redstone’s household affairs, but top executives have insisted he is “sharp as a tack.” Even Herzer, together with Holland, told Vanity Fair in June that Redstone was in good health. “He’s very sharp,” said Holland. “He remembers everything.” Redstone is said to have very limited ability to communicate, and he has been absent from company meetings and silent on earnings calls.
Leah Bishop, Redstone’s estate lawyer, told The Wall Street Journal in October that an independent physician had confirmed Redstone had “the capacity to execute estate-planning documents.” She added, “The examination was conducted to safeguard against meritless challenges.” And now Redstone lawyer Gabrielle Vidal of Loeb & Loeb goes further, telling THR: “Only Ms. Herzer would interpret Mr. Redstone’s decision to evict her from his home as evidence of diminished capacity. This has nothing to do with Ms. Herzer’s concern for Sumner Redstone and everything to do with her concern for her own financial agenda. The notion that Mr. Redstone requires her oversight is absurd.”
The Herzer source says Redstone now is in the care of three nurses working 12-hour shifts and is visited by a doctor almost daily. In a statement to THR, Shari, who sits on the Viacom and CBS boards, says: “Family members have been there in person or have checked in by phone every day since they have been permitted access to Sumner and his home. Beyond that, we believe everyone will see the situation for exactly what it is, so no further response is necessary.”
While Shari Redstone’s statement suggests the family previously had been kept from Redstone, Herzer’s associate denies that, offering as proof a Sept. 8 email from Herzer reading, “Please let Shari know that she is more then [sic] welcome to come visit Sumner tomorrow at 11 am.” Curiously, the email was addressed not to Shari’s office but to one of Redstone’s assistants at Viacom as well as Bishop, the estate lawyer, and Viacom and CBS board member David Andelman, who company insiders believe to be a member of the trust that will take control of Redstone’s voting shares in his companies when the mogul dies.
A source with knowledge of the situation says that meeting between Sumner and Shari Redstone was canceled shortly before it was to take place, supposedly at Sumner’s request.
As THR first reported, Holland was shut out of the billionaire mogul’s world in early September, ostensibly because of her now-terminated relationship with George Pilgrim, a sometime actor and self-proclaimed UFO expert who spent two years in prison. (THR reported that rift the same day Herzer sent the email inviting Shari to visit her father.) Weeks later, Herzer also was shown the door, and multiple sources speculate she and Holland have been dropped from Redstone’s will.
The implication of Herzer’s decision to retain O’Donnell is that she might make a formal attempt to challenge Redstone’s competency or seek a settlement from the family. In a twist, it appears that should Herzer make such a move, the mogul’s family — said to have harbored questions about the same issue when he was in the care of Herzer and Holland — would contend that the billionaire is capable of managing his affairs and that both women were dismissed at his behest.
It has been reported that Herzer and Holland have received millions in cash and gifts thanks to their relationship with Redstone. (Holland is said to have no intention of doing battle, telling THR through her attorney, Larry Stein, that she “remains fully supportive of Mr. Redstone.”) If Herzer were to push, she could face strong legal resistance from the family.
But Herzer’s associate says her motives are pure. “Manuela’s only concern is Sumner’s health and safety. He’s been kind and generous to her. She has been unflaggingly loyal to him,” he says. “She just cares about Sumner. I know that’s hard to believe.”
Analysts have lashed the performance of Viacom, which lost more than $11 billion in market value in 2015 as TV ratings have declined at its networks. Given Redstone’s repeated declarations of love for Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman — lately in emails, as he hasn’t given an interview since talking to THR in early 2014 — it seems Dauman’s job is secure, at least as long as Redstone is perceived capable of running his companies.
After Redstone’s death, control of his media empire will pass to a trust. If Shari has effective control of that trust, it is speculated Dauman’s position might not be so secure. The departures of Herzer and Holland create the appearance that Shari Redstone is, in the words of Wall Street analyst Harold Vogel, “likely to be assertive” in the days ahead.
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