January 29, 2015

NEW ORLEANS (AP) A granddaughter of New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson says a lawsuit filed against her grandfather by his estranged heirs is unwarranted and is unnecessarily humiliating the 87-year-old.

Dawn Jones, who is the daughter of Benson's deceased son, Robert Benson, said in a statement released Thursday that she has witnessed ''nothing that warrants'' a lawsuit asking a judge to declare her grandfather mentally incompetent to handle his own affairs.

Tom Benson has recently changed his succession plan to give control of the NFL and NBA clubs to his wife of 10 years, Gayle Benson.

Tom Benson's daughter, Renee Benson, and her children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, who were recently fired from executive roles with the clubs, have asked a judge to block the new succession plan and give them control of the teams.

They claim that Tom Benson has physical and mental infirmities that have left him vulnerable to being manipulated by Gayle Benson and her allies within the upper management of the sports teams.

Jones, however, said she has ''a great relationship with my grandfather and Gayle.''

''I have recently spent time with them both and communicate with them on a regular basis,'' her statement continued. ''I have witnessed nothing that warrants the actions that are currently being taken. I am brokenhearted that other family members have chosen to publicly harass and humiliate the patriarch of our family - the very person who is responsible for giving them everything they have.''

Randall Smith, a lawyer representing Renee Benson and her children, did not immediately respond to an email seeking his response to Jones' statement.

Jones, 44, lives near Austin, Texas. She said she has been married to her husband Chris for 17 years and they have four children ranging in age from 24 to 6. Her father, who was Tom Benson's only son, died from cancer in 1985, the same year Tom Benson bought the Saints.

''Unfortunately, it is now public knowledge that an ugly conflict is taking place in our family,'' Jones' statement said. ''I have remained silent over the past week in hopes that the conflict would be resolved quickly and quietly once other family members saw the irreparable damage that was being done by their actions. It has become apparent over the last few days that they have no intention of stopping their relentless attacks, so at this time I would like to publicly state my support for my grandfather.''

Benson's lawyers have filed a motion asking for the lawsuit to be dismissed.

The motion notes that Renee and her children will still continue to enjoy ''hundreds of millions'' of dollars of assets that have been given to them, but will not have the assets they wanted - the Saints and Pelicans.

Rita LeBlanc, 38, has worked for the Saints since 2001 and has been one of the public faces of the franchise for much of the past nine years during on-field ceremonies or at events with civic and business leaders. She took on similar roles with the Pelicans after Tom Benson bought the NBA team in 2012.

For years, it was understood that she was being groomed to run Tom Benson's pro sports empire, but that changed when her relationship with Gayle Benson soured.

Earlier this month, Tom Benson announced that Renee Benson, and Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, would no longer be involved in the operations of the teams. A day later, they sued in civil district court in New Orleans.

Their lawsuit's allegations included claims that Tom Benson's memory has failed him, that his speech is slurred and that Gayle Benson controls all access him, monitoring his phone calls and emails.

On Wednesday night, Benson attended a Pelicans game with his wife and agreed to an interview during the television broadcast of the game in which he said, ''People think there's something wrong with me. I've been in the office every day putting in a full day of work and I'm doing fine.''

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