The billionaire struggled, but he appears to have impressed a state court judge.
Pierce O’Donnell, the attorney for the ousted companion of Sumner Redstone, has long been hankering to question the ailing 92-year-old billionaire. Redstone himself, he thought, would be “Exhibit A” for the notion that he is mentally incompetent.
But when O’Donnell actually questioned Redstone yesterday, the result appears to have turned out differently.
“I want to ask you some questions,” O’Donnell began. “Who is Manuela Herzer?” An “interpreter” present to translate Redstone’s deeply troubled speech asked the lawyer to repeat his question slowly. But before she could do so, Redstone responded: “She is—Manuela is a fucking bitch.”
So began the long-awaited testimony of Redstone, who was deposed yesterday for just 18 minutes at his Beverly Hills mansion. (Each side was allowed to take a maximum of 15 minutes.) The transcript of the videotaped interview was released this morning and reviewed by Fortune, on the first day of Herzer’s trial to reverse Redstone’s removal of her as his health care agent.
That action, accompanied by Redstone’s decision to erase his $70 million bequest to her in his will, occurred last Oct. 16, four days after Redstone ejected Herzer, his live-in companion, from his home. She subsequently filed suit. If the judge finds that Redstone was incompetent when he took these actions, it could also shift his controlling stake in Viacom VIAB and CBS CBS . It’s all part of a tangled and troubling saga, which Fortune chronicles in a recently published three-part series, “The Disturbing Decline of Sumner Redstone” (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).
Redstone answered questions in short sentences, according to the transcript, sometimes with help from a speech therapist who interpreted his words. At one point the therapist asked Herzer’s lawyer to “say that again loud. Slow it down.”
Redstone—notorious for his blunt, often profane manner—appears to have been quite clear about the central question of his feelings about Herzer and his health care directive. Asked how Herzer, who lived in his mansion since 2013, departed, he responded: “I kicked her out.” He recalled the month and year, though O’Donnell questioned whether his words were being correctly translated: “Is that what he said?” (Apparently, some dental issues contributed to the communication gap: At one point, the interpreter asked nursing staff standing by to “adjust his dentures.”)
After the first few questions, Redstone appeared to lose focus, and required coaching to “swallow” and “bite down.” Asked what Herzer did to assist in caring for him, he repeated: “Manuela is a fucking bitch.”
Midway through the short deposition, the interpreter shifted to asking Redstone to spell out his answers by pointing to individual letters shown to him. He seemed unable to do this.
O’Donnell asked what his original family birth name was. (It was Rothstein, changed to Redstone while he was attending Harvard.) Redstone did not respond.
He then showed Redstone a photograph, and asked where it was taken. Redstone correctly answered “At Para—Paramount,” the movie studio he’s controlled since Viacom bought it for $10 billion in 1994.
Asked if he fell in love “at some point” with Herzer—who declined his offer of marriage in 2000, a few months after they began dating—Redstone answered “yes.”
He was unable to communicate how long they dated (less than two years), before becoming non-romantic friends. But then O’Donnell asked, “Mr. Redstone, did Manuela steal money from you?” According to the transcript, Redstone replied “Yes.”
Redstone was unable to say—or point to a number placed before him—how much he believed Herzer had “stolen.” But he acknowledged once saying that she was “the love of his life,” and said “no,” when asked if he still loved her.
As his final question, O’Donnell asked Redstone if he confronted her about why he wanted her to leave his house.
Redstone said he did not. Asked “why not,” Redstone replied: “Because she’s a fucking bitch.”
With that, O’Donnell ended his questioning.
One of Redstone’s own lawyers, Gabrielle Vidal, then took over. Under her questioning, Redstone, asked why he booted Herzer from his house, said “She lied to me.” Once again, O’Donnell questioned the interpreter’s account when Redstone detailed the topics of the alleged deceit: concealing a letter of apology from one girlfriend (Sydney Holland) who was evicted after admitting that she’d cheated on him and telling him that his new romantic interest (Terry Holbrook) was regularly unavailable to visit.
Redstone’s lawyers say Herzer wanted to obstruct any romantic interests because she “recognized that the object of Mr. Redstone’s affections held the key to his pocketbook, and thus she became focused on keeping other women out of his life.” (Herzer’s lawyer denies she hid the apology letter or stood in the way of Redstone’s visit with Holbrook.)
In the transcript, Redstone says he wants his sometimes estranged daughter Shari—not Herzer—to make his health care decisions if he becomes incapacitated. (He struggled a bit to say her name.) Redstone also said he has been seeing his family again, and “I feel good about it.”
At the end, asked by his lawyer “what you want at the end of his trial,” Redstone responded clearly: “I want Manuela out of my life. Yeah.”
In her suit, Herzer has asserted that Redstone has become “a living ghost,” almost incapable of communicating. Her lawyers also assert that he’s become the subject of undue influence—”brainwashed” by lies from staff eager to increase their pay and influence, and guided from afar by Redstone’s daughter.
With the transcript’s release, presiding state judge David Cowan asked O’Donnell what evidence he has to rebut Redstone’s repeated statements that he wants Herzer out of his life, telling him “your burden is now a hard one,” according to media accounts of events in the downtown Los Angeles courtroom. O’Connell reportedly replied that he had strong proof, which he would present during the trial.
O’Connell issued a statement afterward noting that the Redstone transcript contains “the court reporter’s record of his testimony.” While not indicating whether he was challenging the transcript’s accuracy, O’Donnell added: “What it cannot convey, however, is the heart-rending image of this great man who tragically is no longer capable of managing his own affairs.”