Trial of Saints, Pelicans owner ends, ruling pending

NEW ORLEANS (AP) New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson emerged from an eight-day trial on Friday predicting he would maintain control of his teams, despite arguments by his recently estranged heirs that he is unfit to do so.

''I already know the decision,'' Benson said, basing his assessment on state Civil District Judge Kern Reese's countenance as Reese informed both sides he would rule within a week. ''I could tell by his face.''

The 87-year-old Benson announced in January that he'd crafted a new succession plan that places his third wife, Gayle, first in line to take over New Orleans' NFL and NBA teams.

Benson also ousted his daughter, Renee Benson, and her children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, from ownership and fired them from executive positions with the teams and other businesses. The jilted heirs sued the day the new ownership structure was announced, claiming that Gayle Benson had conspired with top executives of the clubs to manipulate Tom Benson while he was in declining mental and physical health.

The trial was ''not fun,'' Tom Benson said, adding, ''To have your kids turn against you - that's for the birds.''

When those comments were relayed to the estranged heirs, their lawyer, Randall A. Smith responded, ''If he said that, that's sad. They're not against him. They're for him.''

Smith said his clients ''want to protect their family, the fans, the businesses, the employees.''

''All three of these lifelong members of Tom Benson's family - they've been in his businesses since they were teenagers,'' Smith continued. ''They're committed to doing the right thing. They love the Saints. They love the Pelicans. They love New Orleans. We're just trying to do what's right and feel like that's what we've done here.''

The estranged heirs wanted the judge to compel Tom Benson to testify, but that didn't happen.

In other mental competency cases in Louisiana, called interdictions, lawyers said judges sometimes conduct an interview in their chambers with the person whose mental health is being challenged, rather than subjecting them to cross-examination on the witness stand.

Lawyers declined to say if that happened in Tom Benson's case because Reese had issued a gag order in an effort to preserve the pro sports owner's medical privacy rights.

During trial, Smith called his three clients as witnesses, as well as one of Benson's former nurses; a former Benson business associate from San Antonio; a former housekeeper; and a psychiatrist his clients had selected to evaluate their patriarch for the court.

The judge ordered a mental evaluation by three psychiatrists - one selected by each side and a third physician who was agreed upon by the first two, and who was expected to be more neutral.

Tom Benson's lawyers called their psychiatrist and the more neutral physician as witnesses. They also called Dennis Lauscha, who is president of both pro teams; an estate lawyer; and Gayle Benson.

Renee Benson is Tom Benson's only living child and for decades has worked in his businesses in Louisiana and Texas.

Rita LeBlanc began working for the Saints full time in 2001 and after Hurricane Katrina became one of the premier public faces of the franchise during ceremonies on game days or at events involving civic or business leaders. She performed similar tasks for the Pelicans after her grandfather bought the NBA team in 2012.

Ryan LeBlanc managed some of his grandfather's businesses, primarily in Texas.

Gayle Benson is a former interior decorator who married Tom Benson in 2004. Lauscha has publicly endorsed Gayle Benson's ascension in ownership as a step toward preserving continuity with the franchises. General manager Mickey Loomis, who also serves as a Pelicans vice president, has supported the change as well.

The estranged heirs still stand to inherit hundreds of millions of dollars. But Tom Benson has sought to swap out assets in irrevocable trusts he'd set up for his daughter and her children to remove their ownership stakes in his teams and other businesses.

Benson's attempt to change the trusts is tied up in a separate lawsuit in federal court in New Orleans.

A third lawsuit involving an older trust that benefits Renee Benson and contains business interests in the San Antonio area is ongoing in probate court in Texas. There, a judge has appointed temporary receivers to oversee the trust that had previously been controlled by Tom Benson. That case does not involve the Saints and Pelicans.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide—from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Andy Staples, Grant Wahl, and more—delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.