In what to outsiders seemed to be a surprise move, lawyers for the daughter with whom Tom Benson is feuding have successfully asked a Texas judge to concede to the Saints and Pelicans owner some of the grounds he might be pursuing in his appeal of a decision about a trust of which he has at least momentarily lost control.
Benson has complained that San Antonio Probate Court Judge Tom Rickhoff’s decision in February to remove Benson as overseer of a trust set up for the benefit of daughter Renee Benson was defective in part because the ruling did “not set a date for final trial,” “require the posting of an injunction bond” distinct from a $500,000 bond the daughter was required to put up, or express why Benson’s removal was necessary.
The men Rickhoff ordered to take over the decision-making responsibilities for the trust — attorney Art Bayern and former San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger — also posted bonds paid for with money from the trust.
On Friday, a group of lawyers for Renee Benson led by Bennett Stahl, of San Antonio, lodged a motion that in part suggested Rickhoff set a final trial date; require a separate $500 bond from the daughter that could be filed in cash; and express that she could be “irreparably harmed” without the judge’s action.
Rickhoff granted the motion from Stahl and his colleagues on Monday, tentatively setting a trial date for Sept. 1 in case the matter isn’t settled by then.
Rickhoff informed the lawyers on both sides of his decision via a signed letter. “I made a point of asking both sides how they anticipated disposing of the underlying cause,” Rickhoff wrote. “No one wanted a (trial) setting.”
Before Friday’s and Monday’s developments, Benson had served notice that he was going to appeal Rickhoff’s decision to remove him as overseer of the trust created for Renee by her mother, Shirley Benson, who died in 1980. Benson’s lawyers contended that Rickhoff’s ruling did not consider remedies that were less “harsh” than appointing new overseers for the trust.
In paperwork Benson’s lawyers filed to seek an expedited review of Rickhoff’s ruling, the attorneys said they had not detailed all of the grounds for the appeal by the owner of New Orleans’ NFL and NBA franchises.
Texas’ 4th Court of Appeals subsequently rejected Benson’s request for a speeded-up appeal. That request said Bayern and Hardberger were charging his daughter’s trust $9,600 a day in fees — money that could not be recovered later. The appeals court has said Benson’s full brief is due March 18.
Rickhoff wrote in his letter Monday that he furnished the appeals court with a copy of his ruling on the motion from Stahl and his colleagues.
The Shirley Benson trust includes shares in Bensco Inc., which owns several car dealerships; a 97 percent interest in Lone Star Capital Bank; about $5 million in cash; and real estate in Louisiana and Texas. It became part of a bitter legal clash between Tom Benson and Renee — who, along with her children, was barred in January from any future dealings with the Saints, Pelicans and other assets belonging to her father.
Tom Benson, twice widowed, instead wants his third wife, Gayle, to inherit the reins of a business empire Forbes estimates is worth almost $2 billion when he dies.
Part of Renee Benson’s response to being cut off by her father was to ask a Texas court to freeze the assets in the trust set up by her mother.
Separately, Renee and her children filed a lawsuit in New Orleans Civil District Court seeking to have the 87-year-old Benson declared mentally unfit to make business decisions. Judge Kern Reese has tasked three physicians with conducting a mental evaluation of Benson; it is expected they will report their findings around mid-March.
The legal battles in both Texas and New Orleans follow a Dec. 21 incident in which Benson’s granddaughter, Rita LeBlanc, allegedly yelled profanities at Gayle Benson. An anonymously sourced report from a local media outlet recently said Rita also grabbed Gayle and shook her during that confrontation.