Renee Benson spent about four hours on the witness stand Tuesday, seeking to convince a judge that her 87-year-old father is no longer capable of presiding over his business affairs.
She was the first of two witnesses on the second day of a trial that will determine whether Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson is mentally fit enough to continue running the business empire he’s been building since the 1960s.
Renee Benson’s daughter, Rita LeBlanc, followed her on the stand Tuesday afternoon. She was still under direct questioning when the trial recessed for the night.
It is expected Rita will finish testifying Wednesday. Her brother, Ryan LeBlanc, is slated to follow her on the witness stand, as is a psychiatrist their side chose to examine Tom Benson earlier this year.
Renee, Rita and Ryan had not been looking forward to testifying about their family patriarch, their attorney Randy Smith said, but they are doing what they believe is in the best interest of their loved ones.
Smith argued that his clients aren’t testifying against Benson, but for him.
“They’ve been involved in these businesses since they were teenagers. ... The whole situation is hard,” Smith told reporters. “I think a lot of people have gone through seeing a loved one who gets older and needs to be properly protected. ... It’s grueling. It’s emotional.”
Benson’s trial is closed to the public. Members of the press camped out on benches in the hallway outside Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese’s courtroom to observe the family members as they came and went.
At one point during a break in her testimony, Renee Benson emerged from the courtroom, only to be quickly ushered by her daughter and a lawyer into a restroom generally reserved for the courthouse’s jury pool. She returned to the witness stand after a few minutes.
It wasn’t clear if she was emotionally upset or was suffering from some ailment.
When she finally finished testifying about 2:55 p.m., Renee declared, “I’m done,” to no one in particular as she walked back into the courtroom to watch her daughter take the stand.
Later, Smith characterized the tone of Tuesday’s proceedings as “somber.”
Numerous times Tuesday, Tom Benson told reporters that all was going well with the trial from his vantage point. “Wait till I get up there,” he said before being driven away from the courthouse for the lunch break.
It’s not clear whether Benson actually plans to testify on his own behalf. Asked later if he would, he said, “I don’t know — I’m ready.”
Benson remained silent when asked to describe what it was like listening to his daughter and granddaughter testify.
Before they were cut out of his succession plans earlier this year, Benson’s estranged family members played a variety of roles in his businesses.
Rita LeBlanc served as an executive with his NFL and NBA franchises. Renee, the daughter of the twice-widowed Benson and his first wife, Shirley, was involved in running her father’s hunting ranch in Texas, banks and automobile dealerships. Ryan worked at the ranch and in the automotive businesses.
Alleging years of incompetence and disappointing performance, Benson dismissed Renee, Rita and Ryan as employees in December. The family rift became public in January when he revealed to the media that he was barring Renee, Rita and Ryan from working with him any longer.
The decision positioned Benson’s third wife, Gayle Benson, as next in line to take control over her husband’s sports teams and other assets in Louisiana and Texas after his death.
Renee, Rita and Ryan fired back by filing a lawsuit in Civil District Court asking that Benson be declared mentally unfit to execute business decisions on his own. Among their allegations was that Gayle Benson had been manipulating her husband and exerting undue influence over him before he cut out his other relatives and made her the primary heir to his businesses.
Reese subsequently ordered Benson to undergo a mental evaluation performed by three doctors: one chosen by him, one selected by his relatives and a third picked by the first two.
Over the objections of various media outlets, the judge also ruled that the lawsuit would be tried behind closed doors starting Monday, when a former Benson business associate and a nurse who worked with him testified in Reese’s courtroom.
The physician picked by Renee, Rita and Ryan is veteran geriatric psychiatrist Dr. Ted Bloch III. Bloch was seen in the courthouse Tuesday but ultimately had to wait at least one more day to testify in the case.
Benson’s mental competency trial is expected to last through at least Friday.
Other lawsuits related to the Benson family dispute are pending in New Orleans’ federal court and in Texas. Those lawsuits mostly center around a group of family trust funds.