March 11, 2015

NEW ORLEANS (AP) Tom Benson has taken the legal struggle for control of his NFL and NBA teams to federal court while documents obtained by The Associated Press show distrust was fracturing his family months before their bitter public split in January.

Benson sued in U.S. District Court in New Orleans on Wednesday in an effort to regain assets in the Saints and Pelicans from trusts he'd set up for recently estranged heirs.

The lawsuit contends that trustee Robert Rosenthal has unlawfully rejected Benson's bid to place $556 million in mostly promissory notes into the trusts for his daughter Renee, and her children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, in exchange for shares in the clubs.

The move is part of Tom Benson's effort to ensure his third wife, Gayle, whom he married in 2004, gets control of his businesses upon his death - not the spurned heirs who've been ousted from ownership and executive positions with the NFL and NBA clubs.

It's also the latest chapter in a family split foreshadowed by internal team communications, obtained by AP, which date back to when the Saints were in training camp in West Virginia.

In a terse email to Saints and Pelicans president Dennis Lauscha on Aug. 7, Renee Benson expressed concern that she and her children never knew about a surgical procedure performed on the family's 87-year-old patriarch until after the fact. When they did find out, it was not from Tom Benson himself, or from an email update that Gayle Benson had sent to about two dozen people.

It was from Lauscha, who quickly forwarded Gayle Benson's update to them.

''This is not how our family does things!'' Renee Benson vented to Lauscha. ''Please. Keep us better informed!''

Recently, Tom Benson has been undergoing a court-ordered psychiatric examination which a state judge in New Orleans wants completed by Friday. The results, which the judge has ordered be kept private, could help decide who controls New Orleans' major pro sports franchises.

The psychiatric evaluation resulted from a lawsuit by the estranged heirs, who want the team owner declared mentally unfit to oversee his own affairs. The lawsuit painted Gayle Benson as a manipulative woman who has conspired with certain Saints and Pelicans executives to isolate an enfeebled Tom Benson from family, and to seize control of his businesses.

Paul Cordes, an attorney for Tom and Gayle Benson, said Wednesday that Benson's daughter and grandchildren ''had full access'' to him during times they sent emails about being kept out of the loop.

Renee Benson and her children responded with a general statement about their efforts ''to protect our beloved father and grandfather during this time in his life.''

They asserted they ''have every intention of carrying on our father and grandfather's legacy for future generations by continuing to support the City of New Orleans, the Saints, and the Pelicans, as we have consistently done in the past.''

The documents obtained by AP include a confidential letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell which outlined Tom Benson's intention, as recently as last June, to name his now-estranged daughter and her children as ''voting co-trustees'' of Saints assets placed in trust for them, and to give Rita LeBlanc authority to represent the club at NFL owners meetings.

That letter was crafted about a half year before Tom Benson's attorneys asserted that Benson decided to change his succession plan ''after years of concern and misgivings'' about the ability of his daughter and her children to manage his businesses.

Cordes described the letter to the commissioner as standard housekeeping required by the NFL for succession plans, and said it was submitted before Tom Benson decided he needed to change course.

The emails obtained by AP include updates that Gayle Benson sent to team personnel - including coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees - as well as associates and acquaintances on Aug. 7 and Sept. 4 about her husband following surgeries on his knee. Renee Benson and her children were initially excluded from receiving either email, but Lauscha quickly forwarded them.

In her response to the Aug. 7 email, Rita LeBlanc told Lauscha that Gayle Benson was defying Tom Benson's instructions to keep family members informed about his health.

Documents show that by Nov. 21, Rita LeBlanc was so exasperated by the lack of information she was receiving about her grandfather's health that she asked attorney Carol Baskin to draft a letter to Tom Benson's physicians, requesting that doctors communicate directly with her mother.

''We have no accurate accounting of how many procedures he has had to date, nor specifically how invasive or how many times he has been put under anesthesia,'' LeBlanc wrote to Baskin. ''The current obstructionist behavior on his wife's part is not tolerable.''

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

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