After months of legal squabbling and a round of medical tests, Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson finally made his way into court Monday to begin defending himself against claims from his estranged family members that his mind has grown too feeble to make important business decisions.
During the first day of a closed-door trial that could determine the future control of his sports franchises and other businesses in Louisiana and Texas, the 87-year-old billionaire seemed at ease.
He joked with reporters that they should write about how he was walking “damn good,” even though he needed a cane and the assistance of one of his attorneys to move around.
He complimented a female reporter’s appearance and then greeted a nurse who was about to testify in the case, “How you doing, dear?”
Asked whether he was in good enough shape to remain at the helm of a business empire he began building in the 1960s, Benson confidently replied, “I’ve been running them for 50 years, huh?”
Whether Benson is permitted to prolong that run will be up to New Orleans Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese, who is presiding over a trial that could stretch into Friday.
Various media outlets appealed Reese’s recent decision to hold the trial in private. But on Monday, state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal Judges Dennis Bagneris, James McKay and Rosemary Ledet unanimously upheld the decision.
The media outlets argued that Benson’s trial should be open to the public because he and his sports teams will get $350 million in state subsidies through 2025. Reese, though, agreed with Benson’s lawyers when they argued that closing the courtroom was the best way to protect his medical privacy.
The denial of the media’s appeal paved the way for opening arguments and the testimony Monday of some witnesses, including Tom Roddy and Takiyah Daniels. There was also video testimony from a former housekeeper, whose name wasn’t available.
Roddy has worked with Benson since 1972 and until recently was on the board of nearly all of Benson’s businesses. In previous testimony during an unrelated trial, Roddy called into question Benson’s ability to manage his fiduciary responsibilities and said he leaned heavily on others to make decisions.
Daniels was scheduled for a deposition prior to the trial. She has been a registered nurse since 2010 and worked with Benson.
Daniels and Roddy both were called to the stand by Randy Smith, the attorney for Benson’s daughter, Renee, and her children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc. After testifying, Daniels and Roddy each emerged from Reese’s courtroom looking visibly haggard.
Neither commented on what occurred in the courtroom, but Roddy said he was headed straight to a nearby restaurant to relax by drinking a glass of wine and reading The Wall Street Journal.
Daniels acknowledged she knew people on both sides of the dispute well and — with a sigh — said, “It is mentally draining for myself and my family to be involved in this.”
A split in Benson’s family erupted into public view when he revealed in January that he was barring Renee, Rita and Ryan from participating in his various businesses. Benson’s third wife, Gayle Benson, is now in line to take over her husband’s sports teams and other assets in Louisiana and Texas after he dies.
Gayle Benson was not at the courthouse Monday. Renee, Rita and Ryan allege that Gayle Benson has manipulated her husband and exerted undue influence over his affairs.
In reaction to being cut off by the family patriarch, Renee, Rita and Ryan asked the court in a lawsuit to find Benson mentally unfit to execute his own business decisions. The quarrel also has spurred other lawsuits in New Orleans’ federal court and in Texas, mostly centering around various family trust funds.
Before the start of the trial Monday, Benson underwent a court-mandated physical and mental examination performed by three doctors. Those doctors reported their findings to Reese and are expected to testify this week.
Benson’s relatives declined to answer questions posed to them Monday, deferring to their attorney.
Smith said it was the first time Benson, his daughter and his grandchildren have all been in the same room since at least January. He said he didn’t expect the proceedings to “be easy on anybody,” but he portrayed them as “generally cordial.”
He said his clients are acting in the best interest of their family and “all the stakeholders in this.”
“We’re trying to present the evidence that we think is relevant to the case,” Smith said. “We’re just concerned that (Benson) gets the protection that he needs and deserves.”
Subtle hints of the strained Benson family dynamic were on display in the hallways outside the courtroom.
At one point, Ryan LeBlanc asked a court aide where the restroom was. The aide gestured down the hallway and said, “Right this way, Mr. Benson.”
Benson’s grandson — who once listed his name as Ryan Benson LeBlanc — replied, “It’s LeBlanc.”
The trial is scheduled to resume at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday. Renee, Rita and Ryan are expected to testify Tuesday.