Gayle Benson, who is almost as prominent a figure in the ongoing trial to determine whether her husband Tom Benson has the mental capacity to manage his business affairs as the Saints and Pelicans owner himself, on Wednesday made her first appearance at Civil District Court since the trial began last week.
Gayle Benson spent almost five hours being questioned by both sides in the dispute before she was dismissed and the trial concluded for the day. She was one of two witnesses called by Tom Benson’s defense team Wednesday.
Like all other evidence in the case, Gayle Benson’s testimony is under seal by order of Judge Kern Reese. The trial is closed to the media and the public.
Gayle Benson did not answer any questions from reporters at the courthouse, although she greeted them and thanked them for being there. As she left a nearly empty courthouse with her husband about 7 p.m., she joked, “Oh — looks like we closed the place down.”
The lawsuit being tried alleges that Gayle Benson, Tom Benson’s third wife, exerted undue influence on the weakened, 87-year-old billionaire before he severed ties with his daughter, Renee Benson, and her children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc.
Benson announced in January that he no longer wanted Renee, Rita and Ryan to have anything to do with his various businesses in Louisiana and Texas, and he removed them from his succession plan for the businesses. Gayle Benson is now in position to take control of the Saints, Pelicans and other business assets owned by her husband when he dies.
In response, Renee, Rita and Ryan filed a lawsuit in Civil District Court seeking to have Benson declared mentally unfit to execute his own business decisions.
Benson maintains that the decision to remove his daughter and grandchildren from his business empire was his alone and was done in response to their professional incompetence.
Benson also has alleged that Renee, Rita and Ryan treated Gayle rudely, causing him much pain. Rita and Gayle reportedly had some kind of confrontation during the Saints’ Dec. 21 loss in New Orleans to the Atlanta Falcons.
Days later, Benson fired Renee, Rita and Ryan as employees of his companies, and it wasn’t long afterward that he in effect moved to cut them out of his life.
Rita had been a high-ranking executive with the Saints and Pelicans, while Renee and Ryan worked for other Benson businesses.
It remains unclear whether Benson himself will take the stand. He has said he is ready to testify if called to do so.
Randy Smith, the lead lawyer for Renee, Rita and Ryan, said the proceedings Wednesday were serious and professional. “It’s not a street fight — it’s a legal proceeding,” he said.
Last week, Smith presented as witnesses all three estranged relatives, as well as a former Benson business associate, a nurse and a psychiatrist, Dr. Ted Bloch III, whom the relatives picked to evaluate the octogenarian. There also was video testimony from an ex-Benson housekeeper.
Benson’s attorneys opened their case Friday with Saints President Dennis Lauscha and continued Wednesday morning with Dr. Kenneth Sakauye.
Bloch, Sakauye and Dr. John Thompson each evaluated Benson and reported their findings to Reese before the mental competency trial started June 1.
Bloch, a veteran geriatric psychiatrist based in New Orleans, was selected for the evaluation by Renee, Rita and Ryan.
Thompson, the chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Tulane University, was chosen by Benson.
Together, the two doctors then selected Sakauye, co-chairman of the University of Tennessee’s Health Science Center’s Department of Psychiatry in Memphis.
Sakauye, called by the defense team, testified for about three hours Wednesday before turning the witness stand over to Gayle Benson. Benson’s relatives had the opportunity to call Sakauye as a witness, but they opted not to do so.
Gayle Benson, 68, has said she spent most of her professional career in interior decorating, having not found much fulfillment in previous jobs at dental offices, in sales and as a secretary.
Filings ahead of the trial alleged that the twice-divorced Gayle was deep in debt and had limited credit when she met the twice-widowed Benson after a morning Mass at St. Louis Cathedral in about 2004. Gayle and Tom Benson quickly hit it off, dated for a few months and wed in October of that year.
Renee, Rita and Ryan have accused Gayle of severely restricting their access to Benson and keeping them in the dark, for instance, about things such as the surgical procedures he’s undergone, even while she was updating people like WWL Radio’s Angela Hill and Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
They also say Gayle manipulated her husband into cutting them out of the family businesses while he was in an enfeebled physical and mental state.
Testimony is expected to last through at least Friday.
The next witnesses expected to be called are Thompson and Benson estate lawyer Paul Cordes.