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Appeal court upholds ruling deeming Benson competent


NEW ORLEANS (AP) A Louisiana appeals court has upheld a civil judge's ruling that New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson was mentally competent when he ousted relatives from ownership positions with his NFL and NBA clubs and appointed his third wife as his primary successor.

In a ruling issued Wednesday, the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal found no fault with Orleans Parish Judge Kern Reese's decision to block the attorney for Benson's estranged daughter and her children from cross-examining their 88-year-old patriarch during the closed trial last June.

Reese had ruled that he found Benson competent after interviewing him in chambers.

Randall A. Smith, the attorney for Renee Benson and her children, Rita and Ryan Leblanc, says his clients are considering filing an appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

In a written statement, Tom Benson said he was grateful for the 4th Circuit's ruling. He also lambasted the ''ingratitude'' of his estranged heirs, who, while cut out from ownership of the pro sports teams, still stand to inherit hundreds of millions of dollars.

''I am hopeful one day soon that all of their ungratefulness will end and I can continue to enjoy my work with the Saints and Pelicans without further interference,'' Tom Benson's statement said.

Winning the mental competency trial in New Orleans was a key step for Tom Benson to prevent his estranged heirs from overturning his new will making Gayle Benson, his wife of about 12 years, his successor as sole owner of the Saints and Pelicans upon his death. Rita Leblanc, in particular, had assumed several high-profile executive roles for the Saints for the better part of a decade before she was banned from Saints and Pelicans headquarters.

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The spurned heirs have alleged not only that Tom Benson is mentally enfeebled, but also that Gayle Benson and a close circle of Saints and Pelicans executives have manipulated their patriarch to cut his daughter and her children out of the future of the clubs.

Smith wanted to cross examine Tom Benson in an effort to prove such a scheme.

The appeals court judges noted that state law does not specifically guarantee people the right not to testify when they are the subjects of mental competency trials, which in Louisiana are called interdictions. However, the 4th Circuit judges found that law clearly does not compel such people to testify, either.

Smith asserted that the 4th Circuit's decision on that matter ''allows for those manipulating someone in a weakened state to conceal the truth.''

Smith added that he appreciated the appeals court ''acknowledging that there was much conflicting evidence presented at trial, and that the judges who heard this appeal may have reached a different'' decision had they been the trial judge.

The 4th circuit's ruling - issued by a three-judge panel comprised of judges Terri Love, Dennis Bagneris and Max Tobias - applies to one of three separate lawsuits that sprung from Tom Benson's decision to cut ties with his daughter and her children. A federal case, which is ongoing, centers on whether Tom Benson has the legal right to substitute promissory notes for the shares of his pro teams that he seeks to remove from irrevocable trusts for his estranged heirs. Another lawsuit in state court in Texas centered on the management of a trust set after the death of his first wife, Shirley, which included mostly Texas assets - including a bank, ranch property and auto dealerships - but not the teams in Louisiana.

In his statement Wednesday, Benson noted that the Texas case was recently settled with his ''complete consent and authorization as the assets in that trust were left to my daughter and grandchildren in my former wife's will.''

''I saw no further need to manage those assets for those who have demonstrated such ingratitude toward me over the course of the last year,'' Benson's statement continued.