Benson family power struggle laid bare in lawsuit over Saints owner’s mental competence _lowres

Associated Press photo by BILL HABER - New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson poses for a photo with his wife Gayle Benson and his granddaughter, Rita Benson LeBlanc, before an NFL football game against the Minnesota Vikings in New Orleans Sept. 21, 2014.

Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson argued in a civil court filing on Tuesday that he has ample justification to make his wife Gayle the inheritor of his teams instead of relatives he had previously tapped for that role.

The latest jab in Benson’s family drama came in response to a lawsuit from his daughter, Renee Benson; granddaughter, Rita LeBlanc; and grandson, Ryan LeBlanc, seeking to have him declared mentally unfit to make such a decision.

The filing says Benson attempted to groom Ryan, Renee and Rita into executives he could trust to own and manage the various parts of his business empire, worth an estimated $1.76 billion. But they never met the challenge, the filing says.

The filing also says that Ryan, Renee and Rita lack the legal basis for their main purpose, which is to empower Renee to make Benson’s decisions for him in part because she is his next of kin. That is a most extreme step requiring more than pointing out Benson’s age (87) and providing anecdotes about things like his forgetfulness, the Saints and Pelicans owner’s counsel argues.

The filing vigorously disputes that Benson’s health is not being cared for because he’s undergone knee and stomach procedures and has logged multiple emergency room visits in recent months, all of which were cited in his relatives’ suit. Benson’s filing counters that his medical visits show he and those around him are trying to keep him in the best health possible.

The filing also directly addressed one of the more salacious allegations in Ryan, Renee and Rita’s filing: that Tom Benson’s diet primarily consisted of candy, sodas, red wine and ice cream. The filing said Benson has hired a nutritionist to help him with his diet, “rendering (his daughter’s and her children’s) claims about his eating habits even more absurd.”

Benson’s filing noted that Rita, Ryan and Renee still stand to benefit from various trusts their family patriarch has established for them and “will continue to enjoy the hunders of millions of dollars they have been given.”

“They simply will not have the specific assets they would like to have,” read the filing, prepared by Benson’s lawyers Phillip Wittmann, James Gulotta and Matthew Almon.

Tom Benson last week announced he would seek approval to alter a succession plan that would have made Ryan, Renee and Rita the primary inheritors of various businesses he had built since he started his career as a bookkeeper and manager at a Chevrolet dealership in New Orleans in 1948.

Benson eventually became Louisiana’s sole billionaire after purchasing the Saints in 1985 and the Pelicans when they were still the Hornets in 2012, and last week he said he wanted Gayle Benson, whom he married in 2004, to take over for him in the event of his death.

Ryan, Renee and Rita quickly launched a legal challenge to Benson’s new plans, filing a civil suit that said the 87-year-old patriarch was being unduly influenced while in a weakened mental and physical state. They also contend that Tom Benson is improperly attempting to wrest away assets he had folded into an irrevocable trust that he had set up in part for their benefit.

Tom Benson signed a Dec. 27 letter telling his former heirs that they were no longer welcome to speak with him or show up at his businesses. He also fired them as employees.

Before filing his formal response to their claims Tuesday, Tom Benson had said in prepared statements that all decisions related to the succession plan were his alone. He also repeatedly said that an executive leadership team headed by Saints and Pelicans president Dennis Lauscha and the football club’s general manager Mickey Loomis would remain in tact and work alongside Gayle Benson.

Tuesday’s filing revealed Benson executed a power of attorney appointing both Lauscha and Gayle Benson as his co-agents “to jointly act on his behalf with regard to his business affairs and property in the event he is unable to do so.”

“It should be noted,” the filing said, “that both co-agents must act together to take any action.”

The filing noted a physician named Steve Ramee personally witnessed the execution of the power of attorney document.