Granddaughter of Saints, Pelicans owner concludes testimony
NEW ORLEANS (AP) Rita LeBlanc once expected to spend many years running the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans, which would have made her one of the most powerful women in pro sports.
This week, the disowned granddaughter has spent many hours on a witness stand, trying to persuade a judge that her 87-year-old grandfather, Tom Benson, was not of sound mind when he ousted her, her mother and her brother from ownership positions with his NFL and NBA clubs, and changed his succession plan to place his third wife in line to control his business empire.
On Wednesday, LeBlanc concluded about eight hours of testimony, including more than two hours late Tuesday afternoon.
The courtroom has been closed to the public and participants are under a gag order regarding the substance of the case. But LeBlanc's layer, Randall A. Smith, said his client was ''doing great'' during one of several breaks.
Testimony has taken longer than expected, Smith said, and he now expects the trial to extend into next week.
Tom Benson has avoided making comments about the case but has exchanged pleasantries with reporters outside the courtroom.
When the trial adjourned Wednesday, he walked more briskly than usual toward courthouse elevators, ahead of attorneys who during the previous two days could be seen holding one of his arms to stabilize him.
Asked how he was holding up through three days of trial, Benson said, ''As long as you're walking and feel good, you're OK. ... Everything's going fine. It's just taking a lot of my time, that's all. I've got better things to do.''
He did not answer a question about how it made him feel to hear what his granddaughter had to say under oath. Instead, his lawyer, Phil Wittmann, jumped in, saying, ''You all know better than to ask those questions.''
Rita LeBlanc has worked for the Saints since 2001 and since Hurricane Katrina had become one of the premier public faces of the franchise during ceremonies on game days or at events involving civic or business leaders. She has performed similar tasks for the Pelicans since her grandfather bought the NBA team in 2012.
She appeared to be on track to eventually run both franchises until late last December. Then she was evicted from her office at Saints and Pelicans headquarters, had her company car repossessed and was told by her grandfather in a letter - which also went to her mother and brother - that he wanted them out of his life because of their mistreatment of his wife, Gayle. In legal documents, Tom Benson also has argued that his jilted heirs - who still stand to inherit hundreds of millions of dollars - failed to prove themselves capable of running his businesses.
Gayle Benson, 68, married Tom Benson in 2004, and now is in line to inherit control of the teams and other Benson businesses - barring a ruling at trial that her husband was mentally enfeebled and being manipulated when he changed his succession plan, as his daughter and her two children contend.
Tom Benson's daughter, Renee Benson, who is her father's only living child, testified Tuesday. LeBlanc's brother, Ryan, began his stint on the witness stand late Wednesday afternoon.
Once attorneys finish questioning Ryan LeBlanc, subsequent witnesses are expected to include psychiatrists who examined Benson and submitted a report to the court before trial.
The psychiatric evaluation was performed by Drs. Ted Bloch, John Thompson and Kenneth Sakauye.
Bloch, who specializes in geriatric psychiatry, practices in New Orleans and was selected by Benson's estranged heirs. Thompson chairs Tulane University Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and was selected by Tom Benson. Civil District Judge Kern Reese ordered Bloch and Thompson to agree on a third psychiatrist. That was Sakauye, co-chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Tennessee.
Like many filings in the case, the physicians' report has been sealed, so it is unclear whether it came to definitive conclusions agreed upon by all three doctors, or how much weight their conclusions will have in trial.
It is also unclear if Tom Benson will take the stand. Louisiana law leaves that up to a judge in civil, mental competency cases, known in Louisiana as interdictions.
''It would be interesting to see, I hope (Tom Benson) does,'' testify, said Smith, the lawyer for the estranged heirs. ''All I can say is the law says the interdict has the right to testify. But I'm not going to speak for judge Reese.''