As the NFL and NBA begin the process of vetting Gayle Benson, the wife of Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson and the new proposed heir to his two sports franchises, the leagues’ officials might raise their eyebrows at one fact from her life as a businesswoman before she married Louisiana’s lone billionaire.
She ended up in court in New Orleans as a civil defendant 18 times from 1987 to 2000, facing lawsuits that were mostly related to her career in interior design, according to court records.
Complete records of those cases weren’t immediately available Monday, given how old some of them are, and the outcomes of several weren’t clear.
But docket entries and similar records show Gayle Benson — whose last name was then Bird, the same as a husband she divorced in 1986 — frequently battled allegations that she didn’t pay off bills in a timely way or was in breach of contract.
Few if any of the cases involved large sums of money, and sometimes they were dismissed. But on occasion she had to settle. Once, she had a judgment rendered against her after a trial.
On another occasion, she was arrested on suspicion of theft, though she was never prosecuted and subsequently launched her own lawsuit over the arrest in federal court.
There’s no denying that the business Gayle Benson used to be in has become litigious, said Phillip Tebbutt, an associate professor of interior design at LSU. It’s common for customers and interior designers to disagree about whether a job-related demand was part of a negotiated contract, he said, calling lawsuits “an ax hanging overhead” for designers.
On the other hand, Tebbutt said being sued that often struck him as unusual for a licensed interior designer.
“That’s the point … of being licensed — you’re offering that authority that you do understand the laws, the codes, how to manage contracts and that you can apply them properly,” Tebbutt said.
Phillip Wittmann, a longtime lawyer for Tom Benson, insisted that nothing in Gayle Benson’s past would cause concern for the NFL or the NBA as she steps in line to inherit ownership of the Saints and Pelicans, properties which were previously slated to go to Tom Benson’s daughter, Renee Benson; his granddaughter, Rita LeBlanc; and his grandson, Ryan LeBlanc.
“I know of nothing, frankly, that would be an impediment for Mrs. Benson to be approved by the NFL (or the NBA) as an owner — if it should even come up,” Wittmann said.
It is certainly too soon to say how much Gayle Benson’s old legal entanglements will figure in either league’s review processes.
Renee Benson, Rita LeBlanc and Ryan LeBlanc are mounting a vigorous legal challenge against Tom Benson’s attempt to take family businesses out of their inheritances.
But top management at the teams that Benson owns has said the succession proposal won’t alter an executive leadership team that oversaw the capture of a Super Bowl in February 2010 and Anthony Davis’ blossoming into a pro basketball superstar.
Nonetheless, Gayle Benson’s various court battles from before she became Tom Benson’s third wife in 2004 could factor into the discussion if the NFL’s and NBA’s ownership vetting processes are as thorough as they are reputed to be.
While the NFL and NBA would most likely look favorably on the fact that the Saints and Pelicans are essentially family businesses worth an unmistakably healthy $1.76 billion combined, potential owners in each league are supposed to undergo rigorous background checks done by external firms that delve into everything from candidates’ entrepreneurial dealings to their character.
Reports generated by those reviews are then presented to league owners. To approve a transfer of ownership, the NFL requires votes in favor from at least 24 of 32 teams, and the NBA requires votes from at least 23 of 30 clubs.
The lawsuits that could come in for scrutiny include multiple alleged breaches of contract as well as “open account” suits in New Orleans Civil District Court or 1st City Court.
Most of the sums involved in those cases were about $5,000 or less and sometimes involved unpaid debts for goods or services ordered.
One saw the company that Gayle Benson used to be president of — Gayle Bird Interiors Ltd. — go to trial, resulting in a $1,689.67 judgment against the company in 1992.
Another involved an advertisement Gayle Bird Interiors Ltd. took out in a magazine. The company requested that the ad continue to run over a certain period but at some point simply stopped paying for it, said the plaintiff, John Demers.
When Demers confronted Gayle Benson about the situation, she persuaded him to keep running the ad in the magazine as a personal favor and promised him she would eventually pay, he said.
He said she then stopped returning messages or answering calls, so he sued and received a settlement.
“That’s the only lawsuit I’ve ever filed in my life, and (she’s) the only (person) that ever did that to me,” Demers said Monday. “In a small publication where people are helping each other and everyone understands there’s not a rich owner behind it all … people generally paid up.”
The most dramatic case — from 1988 — involved a complaint that Gayle Benson took an expensive desk for renovation from a customer and refused to return it. Police arrested her and booked her with theft over $500.
The Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office ultimately declined to prosecute Benson. She later lodged a federal civil rights violation lawsuit against several parties, including the customer and the city of New Orleans.
Two NFL spokesmen on Monday declined to comment on whether or to what extent such information would fall within the scope of the vetting of a potential sports owner.
NFL and NBA approval for Gayle Benson is a separate process from the litigation that awaits after Tom Benson’s now-estranged relatives filed a petition asking to have him declared mentally unfit to make his own business decisions.
They also contend that Tom Benson is intent on improperly removing assets from irrevocable trusts set up for the benefit of Rita LeBlanc, Ryan LeBlanc and Renee Benson at the urging of power-hungry, manipulative advisers.
“In some quarters, a narrative has been put forward that suggests that Tom Benson, after much deliberation, made a considered decision to reverse decades of plans to have Rita succeed him as the designated owner of the Saints and replace Rita with his wife Gayle,” said Randy Smith, the lead lawyer for the LeBlanc siblings and Renee Benson.
“Instead, the evidence suggests that Tom Benson, in a weakened mental and physical state, was unduly influenced to suddenly sever all relations with his daughter and grandchildren.”