CANTON, Mass. – A battery of lawyers argued in court Tuesday over whether media mogul Sumner Redstone had the mental competence to remove two trustees of entities that control Viacom Inc. and CBS Corp.
Twenty-two lawyers descended on a probate court in Canton to spar over whether the 93-year-old Redstone decided on his own to remove Viacom chief executive Philippe Dauman and board member George Abrams or whether he is being manipulated by his once-estranged daughter, Shari Redstone.
Dauman and Abrams sued Sumner Redstone last month, seeking to be restored to their roles as trustees of the Sumner M. Redstone National Amusements Trust and as board members of National Amusements Inc., the movie theatre chain.
The lawsuit was filed in Massachusetts because that’s where the trust is administered.
During the first hearing in the case Tuesday, a lawyer for Redstone said the mogul clearly communicated his dissatisfaction with Dauman and Abrams to him. In particular, Redstone was upset with Dauman’s plan to sell a stake in Paramount Pictures, a Viacom subsidiary Redstone refers to as “his baby,” attorney Robert Klieger said.
“Mr. Redstone asked me if I would please communicate a message to Viacom that he did not wish for Paramount or any portion of Paramount to be sold by Viacom,” Klieger said.
During a later conversation, Redstone explained why he wanted the two men removed from their roles, Klieger said.
“He articulated that he believed that Mr. Dauman had been doing a poor job of running Viacom and was not listening to him, to Mr. Redstone, with respect to his wishes regarding Paramount Pictures,” Klieger said.
He said Redstone also cited the potential Paramount sale as his reason for removing Abrams.
“He indicated simply that he did not trust either of them to carry out his wishes,” Klieger said.
A lawyer for Dauman and Abrams, however, said Redstone is very ill and unable to speak, stand, walk, write or read, and is suffering from dementia. Attorney Les Fagen said Redstone is being heavily influenced by his daughter, who he said re-entered Redstone’s life last fall after a long estrangement.
“She has undertaken to control virtually every aspect of his life,” Fagen said.
He also accused Shari Redstone of isolating her father from his longtime colleagues and friends, particularly those at Viacom.
Fagen said the trust has been part of Redstone’s estate plan for years. Under the trust, if he dies or becomes incapacitated, the trustees will decide the future of Viacom and CBS.
“Shari has now attempted to grab control of that trusteeship to control the companies by removing my clients and to replace them with her friends,” Fagen said.
Fagen said Dauman and Abrams are “perhaps Sumner Redstone’s two closest colleagues in the entire world.”
Fagen asked for a speedy trial — citing Redstone’s poor health — and asked Judge George Phelan to order a thorough evaluation of Redstone to help determine whether he made the decision to remove Dauman and Abrams.
“They want to know whether Sumner Redstone — the Sumner Redstone they knew — would ever do this to his closest colleagues, to his fellow board members at Viacom,” Fagen said.
The judge didn’t immediately rule on the requests.
Shari Redstone’s lawyer, Peter Biagetti, said she vigorously denies the allegation that she is manipulating her father or exerting undue influence over him. He acknowledged that Shari Redstone has disagreed with her father over business decisions, but said, “The bond of family, of connection to one another, of trust, is at work here.”
Viacom Inc., a media conglomerate based in New York, owns the Paramount Pictures movie studio and pay TV channels such as MTV, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central and BET.