June 05, 2015

NEW ORLEANS (AP) Attorneys for Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson began calling their witnesses Friday in the 87-year-old billionaire's mental competency trial, starting with a top sports executive.

Dennis Lauscha, who serves as president of New Orleans' NFL and NBA clubs, politely declined to make any comments as he emerged from the closed courtroom following about four hours of testimony.

He was expected to answer questions about Benson's recent involvement in the operations of his businesses, as well as the past performance of estranged Benson heirs who sued in January following their ouster from ownership and executive positions with the clubs.

The plaintiffs are Benson's daughter, Renee Benson, and her children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc. They rested their case following testimony from their seventh witness, geriatric psychiatrist Dr. Ted Bloch, who spent about eight hours on the witness stand Thursday and Friday morning.

''It was a long week,'' said Randall A. Smith, who represents the estranged heirs and has called seven witnesses since trial began Monday. ''We've been doing our job and we feel good about what we've been doing. It's not an easy process. No one really wants to be here. I wish we weren't in this situation. But you've got to do what you've got to do sometimes.''

The estranged heirs still stand to inherit hundreds of millions of dollars through trusts Tom Benson has set up on their behalf over the years. But their patriarch has disowned them, claiming they have mistreated his third wife, Gayle. The teams' owner also has been trying to swap out from the trusts any shares in the pro sports franchises and other businesses.

The jilted heirs claim Tom Benson is not of sound mind and is being manipulated by his wife, whom he married in 2004 and who now is in line to eventually take over her husband's business empire.

In addition to closing the civil proceedings to the public, Judge Kern Reese has issued a gag order preventing participants in the trial from discussing the substance of the case. The judge's intent is to preserve Tom Benson's medical privacy rights.

Outside the courtroom, Tom Benson has limited his comments to how he's feeling, his dissatisfaction with the length of trial or his hope for winning teams.

''Always ready for a fight,'' Benson said outside court Friday. He later joked that his cane was ''just for show.''

Before presenting their case, lawyers for Tom Benson had the right to make a motion for a directed verdict, in which they'd essentially ask the judge to dismiss the case on the grounds that the plaintiffs had not met their burden of proof. If they made such a motion, it was denied.

Smith also made a motion, but citing the gag order, declined to say if it was to compel Tom Benson to testify. If the judge denied that motion, he could still revisit it after the defense rests. Smith has insinuated that he would like to see Tom Benson testify.

Phil Wittmann, who represents Benson, declined to say whether his client would testify, as he has throughout trial, saying only, ''It won't be today.'' And it wasn't.

Court adjourned after Lauscha finished and testimony is slated to resume Wednesday. Lawyers said subsequent defense witnesses are expected to include Tom Benson's preferred psychiatrist, John Thompson of Tulane, and Gayle Benson.

Lauscha, who joined the Saints in 1998 as the club's treasure, steadily rose in the front office and became president in 2012. That year, Tom Benson also bought the Pelicans and chose Lauscha to be president of that club as well.

In January, when Tom Benson announced a change in his succession plan, Lauscha released a statement saying, ''Mr. Benson remains actively involved in the day-to-day operations of all of his businesses,'' and that the clubs' ''strong foundation of success'' on both the business and sports side would continue under the new ownership structure.

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