SAN ANTONIO — Renee Benson told a Texas judge Wednesday that her relationship with her father, Tom Benson, has been deteriorating since he married for the third time in 2004, and that she has not seen him in two months or heard from him since the end of last year.
The lack of communication, along with concerns about Benson’s mental health and recent business decisions, should be enough to remove him as the steward of a Texas trust of which Renee Benson is the beneficiary, Renee Benson’s attorney, Bennett Stahl, told the judge, as the public drama over Tom Benson’s succession plan shifted to Bexar County Probate Court in San Antonio.
“The communication has completely broken off,” Stahl said. “And we have a trustee who says there’s going to be no further communication.”
Judge Tom Rickhoff is considering whether to extend a restraining order put in place last month that bars Tom Benson from taking any action related to a trust set up by his first wife, Shirley, before her death in 1980.
Rickhoff heard testimony Wednesday from Renee Benson, who brought the request for the injunction, and Tom Roddy, a longtime business associate of Tom Benson who offered testimony backing up Renee Benson’s account of Tom Benson’s behavior over the past year.
The trial is expected to resume Thursday morning with three to four witnesses presented by Benson’s defense team. Benson is not expected to testify, his attorney David Beck said.
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, 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, from having any dealings with the teams or any of Benson’s other assets.
In response, the three jilted 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. 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.
Renee Benson’s attorneys, through testimony from Renee Benson and Roddy, attempted to demonstrate that Benson is in frail health and has recently taken actions that call into question his ability to fulfill his fiduciary duties related to the trust, including not paying bills on time and transferring $25 million out of a bank owned by the trust into another bank.
Roddy, who has worked with Benson since 1972 and until recently was on the board of nearly of all Benson’s businesses, said the billionaire is no longer in command of the empire he built over the last 40 years and looks to others for direction.
“There was a difference in what we call the old Tom Benson,” Roddy said. He said instead of making decisions for himself, Benson now leans so heavily on those around him that Roddy encourages people who meet with him to already have a solution worked out when they go in to present a problem to the octogenarian.
But Roddy admitted during cross-examination that he saw Benson face-to-face only a couple of times in 2014.
Roddy also said Benson has been “irresponsible” in his recent management of the trust.
Benson recently transferred $25 million out of Lone Star Capital Bank. Roddy is chairman of the board of that bank, which Benson owns as an asset of the Texas trust. Benson moved the money to another Texas bank.
The transfer is not illegal, Roddy said; the money is Benson’s. But the withdrawal reduced the bank’s holdings by about 12 percent, thereby diminishing the trust, Roddy said. Roddy said he did not know if the withdrawal affected the book value of the bank.
“A good trustee isn’t going to want to decrease the assets … of the bank,” Stahl said. “When the trustee of the trust that owns the bank takes over 10 percent of the deposits and then reduces the bank’s ability to lend money, then reduces the bank’s market value, that is just a clear breach of fiduciary duty.”
Wednesday’s testimony also shed light on the relationship between Benson and his now estranged daughter Renee Benson, his only living child.
Renee Benson, who lives in the San Antonio area, said she last saw her father on Dec. 2, when she, her husband and Roddy flew to New Orleans to visit him. They made the trip, she said, because she was concerned after Benson told her he was “down and confused” on the phone the day before.
She said she found Benson in his home unshaven and wearing pajamas. He was having a lunch of crab claws, Renee Benson said, and “he couldn’t figure out how to get the meat off the claw because the claw kept scooting around the plate.”
“He was happy to see me,” she continued. “He was happy that we were there.”
But the visit ended shortly after Tom Benson talked to his wife, Gayle, on the telephone and told his guests he needed to take a shower, Renee Benson said. She said that she heard Gayle yell, “What is she doing there?” through the phone line.
She said she did not hear from Tom Benson after that day until she received a letter signed by him informing her that he was cutting her out of his business and his life.
Renee Benson said she doesn’t believe her father wrote the letter. She said she doesn’t know why her relationship with her father has dissolved.
“I just heard from other people that he was mad at me,” she said.
She suggested that he is being controlled by people around him.
But Benson’s attorney, Phil Wittmann, said a more logical conclusion is that Benson has been consistent and deliberate in his effort to cut ties with Renee Benson and Rita and Ryan LeBlanc since late December.
Wittmann said Benson’s letter, in which he said he was heartbroken that his heirs didn’t get along with his wife, was sent less than a week after Rita said “some very unpleasant things” to Gayle Benson during halftime of the final game of the Saints’ season on Dec. 21. Wittmann said the “confrontation” included Rita LeBlanc shouting profanities at Gayle Benson.
Renee Benson said she would not characterize the interaction as a confrontation and said she was not aware of any use of off-color language. She said Rita LeBlanc had been trying to “beg” Gayle to allow Tom Benson to see Renee.
Six days after the game, on Dec. 27, Renee LeBlanc and her children received an email, written in oversized type and signed by Tom Benson, ordering them to have nothing more to do with him, his sports franchises or his auto dealerships.
Rita LeBlanc was fired from her management position with the teams Dec. 30. Renee Benson was removed as Benson’s power of attorney Jan. 7. Benson moved to strip his estranged heirs’ ownership stake in the Saints and the Pelicans shortly thereafter, Wittmann said.
“He’s been consistent. He doesn’t want to see you anymore,” Wittmann told Renee Benson.
“I don’t believe that,” she replied.
Attorneys for Benson have filed a motion to dissolve the temporary restraining order.
They are likely to argue Thursday that Renee Benson’s claims about Benson’s health are “speculative and insufficient.” They will also try to show that Benson has done no harm to the trust and therefore should not be prohibited from taking any action related to it.