A Texas court judge is considering whether to extend a restraining order put in place last month that bars Tom Benson from taking any action related to a Texas trust set up by his first wife Shirley before her death in 1980.
Bexar County Probate Court Judge Tom Rickhoff will hear from Tom Benson’s daughter Renee Benson and perhaps representatives from the New Orleans Saints. The trial is expected to last all day Wednesday and pick up again Thursday morning.
The case before Rickhoff is the latest development in the ongoing Benson family feud over the future ownership of the Saints and Pelicans sports franchises. Benson announced last month that he was changing his succession plan to make his wife Gayle Benson his successor, thereby cutting out granddaughter Rita LeBlanc, who had been widely expected to assume control of the professional football and basketball teams.
Benson’s change of heart also eliminated his daughter, Renee Benson and grandson Ryan LeBlanc, Rita’s mother and brother, from having any current or future dealings with the teams or any of Benson’s other assets including five automobile dealerships.
In response, the three ousted heirs filed a petition in Orleans Parish Civil District Court seeking to have the 87-year old declared mentally unfit to make business decisions.
Separately, Renee Benson filed paperwork in Bexar County, which includes San Antonio where Benson still owns several businesses, to temporarily freeze the assets in a trust created by her mother, Shirley Benson, who died in 1980. Tom Benson is the steward of that trust, which includes Renee Benson as a beneficiary.
The trust’s assets include shares in Bensco Inc., which owns several automobile dealerships; a 97 percent interest in Lone Star Capital Bank; about $5 million in cash; and real estate in Texas and Louisiana.
In her request for a temporary restraining order, Renee Benson said her father was in “frail health” and had recently taken actions that called into question his ability to fulfill his fiduciary duties, including not paying bills on time and transferring $25 million out of a bank owned by the trust into another bank.
Attorneys for Benson, in a motion to dissolve the temporary restraining order, dismissed Renee Benson’s claims about Benson’s health as “speculative and insufficient.” Moreover, the trust is not responsible for paying the bills Renee Benson cited, Benson’s attorneys said, so they can’t be used to establish mismanagement of the trust. Similarly, Benson’s attorney’s said, the $25 million transferred out of one bank and into another did not belong to the trust, it was merely held in a bank owned by the trust.
Before issuing the temporary restraining order last month, Rickhoff heard from Renee Benson, Ryan LeBlanc and Tom Benson’s longtime business partner Robert Thomas Roddy.
All told Rickhoff that the restraining order was necessary because Benson was mentally unfit to tend to financial matters.
Roddy is the president of Benson and vice president Renson Inc., which manage and own five Benson automobile dealerships. Roddy also is chairman of the board of Lone Star Capital Bank, which Benson owns.
Roddy, who said he has known Benson since 1972 and last saw him December 2, testified that Benson was “not the same person” that he’d known for more than four decades.
“Physically – he was in his pajamas,” Roddy said according to a court transcript. “He was sitting at a table having lunch. …Unshaven. Not too talkative.”
Beyond that, Roddy said Benson’s once “brilliant, brilliant mind” has diminished in recent years.
“At least seven, eight years ago I noticed a little slippage there, you know, asking the same questions more than once, not having the answers. I tend to equate it with my mother who died with complications from dementia. Same questions, same questions,” Roddy said. “And more recently the last two or three years he will call me and ask the same questions. In the past, he asked a question once and we need to get the answer and move on.”
Roddy also said Benson recently called a special meeting of the shareholders of Lone Star Bank with the purpose of having Roddy, Renee Benson, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc and board vice chairman Bill McCandless eliminated from the bank’s board.
“I find that to be irresponsible as the trustee,” Roddy said.
On the $25 million transfer, Roddy said that although the transfer itself as not illegal, it caused bank, a trustee asset, to take a hit because it reduced the bank’s size by about 12 percent.
“They took a little loss in the bond portfolio,” Roddy said. “You sell a bank by its size and its price-to-earnings ration and several other criteria. It’s not something I would think a person who has been involved in banking like Mr. Benson has since 1972… I think he should have thought about that before doing such a large transaction that quickly.”