A day before the New Orleans Saints won the final football game of their 2014 season, team owner Tom Benson signed a letter informing his daughter and her two children that while he had once tapped them to inherit his billion-dollar business empire, they were now — in no uncertain terms — cut out.
Benson, who also owns the New Orleans Pelicans, accused his adopted daughter, Renee Benson; his granddaughter, Rita LeBlanc; and his grandson, Ryan LeBlanc, of acting in an “offensive” and inappropriate manner after he married his third wife, Gayle Benson, in 2004. The three had even argued amongst themselves, creating a family situation so unpleasant that Louisiana’s only billionaire felt compelled to take drastic action, the letter read.
The price for their bad behavior would be steep, according to the typed missive. The trio was forbidden from contacting him, from entering the Saints’ and Pelicans’ facilities, from attending the teams’ games and from simply showing up at any of his businesses, in which they’d all participated.
“This situation cannot continue at my age,” the letter said.
The family divisions blew wide open Wednesday, when Tom Benson revealed to the public that he wanted to alter the plans he’d previously made that called for his daughter and grandchildren to inherit his NFL and NBA franchises in the event of his death, proposing to instead make his wife, Gayle, his successor.
Renee, Rita and Ryan didn’t wait long to let the public know they weren’t going to take Tom Benson’s dictates lying down. They had their attorneys file paperwork in Orleans Parish Civil District Court on Thursday seeking to have the 87-year-old patriarch of their family declared mentally unfit to make his own business decisions. Exacerbating the ugliness of the family’s power struggle, a filing in probate court in San Antonio alleges that Benson tried to cut Renee, Rita and Ryan out of business interests there by barring them from visiting the car dealerships the family owns. A judge on Wednesday issued a temporary restraining order saying Benson cannot limit the access of the trio from those dealerships. He also agreed to temporarily freeze the assets associated with a trust created by Renee’s mother, Shirley. She was Tom Benson’s first wife and died in 1980. Tom Benson has that trust’s power, and Renee Benson is one of the beneficiaries.
Representing Tom Benson’s now-estranged relatives, attorney Randy Smith said his clients’ hand was forced. Gayle Benson does not have the business acumen — especially in sports — that Renee Benson, Rita LeBlanc and Ryan LeBlanc have, the filings allege. And Smith remarked that “this action (is) in the best interest … of … the multitude of Pelicans and Saints fans” as well as the employees and customers of the Benson family’s other businesses.
Smith was involved in a similar family legal squabble when Blaine Kern Sr. ended up battling in court against his son, Barry, over their family’s Carnival float building company. In that dispute, Smith worked for the son, who was at odds with the father.
Benson sent out a statement late Thursday saying the accusations in the lawsuit further support his decision to transfer the teams to his wife when he dies. He said he has instructed his staff not to comment on the suit in the future.
“Their allegations regarding my mental health are completely meritless and their allegations against my wife equally unfounded,” the statement read. “I will vigorously defend my decisions and the businesses I have built.”
It was not surprising that Benson would fire back at the allegations posed in Thursday’s civil suit, which aims to have him examined by an independent geriatric psychiatrist specializing in determining mental capacity and to have medical records produced in order to help a judge reach a ruling on the matter.
At stake are two sports franchises worth an estimated $1.76 billion combined.
Also, any change in Benson’s succession plan for the Saints would require approval from 24 of the 32 NFL owners, a league spokesman said. That may not be easy. A little more than two years ago, Benson worked to get approval from the NFL to name Renee, Rita and Ryan as his successors in the event of his death. The league reaffirmed that plan last year, according to the lawsuit.
Furthermore, the civil court petition could hardly portray Tom and Gayle Benson in a more unflattering light.
The filings allege two-time divorcee Gayle was in “significant debt” and “had limited credit” in 2003 when she approached a twice-widowed Tom Benson “ostensibly to solicit funds from him for a charity.” The two were married within months.
By then, the filing said, Rita had been working her way up the Saints’ organization, which her grandfather purchased in 1985. She started in football operations in 2001 and ultimately positioned herself as co-owner and vice chairwoman of the board of that team as well as the Pelicans, which Tom Benson bought when it was the Hornets in 2012.
The lawsuit does not delve into an administrative leave of absence Tom Benson imposed on Rita in late 2012 for reasons that were never discussed publicly.
For his part, Ryan LeBlanc has helped manage Benson’s automobile dealerships in Texas and Louisiana and been around the sports franchises. Renee Benson has been involved in her family’s various automotive, artistic, dining, retail and real estate interests, and was part owner of the Saints and Pelicans through various trusts, the filing said.
Allotted to Orleans Parish Civil Court Judge Kern Reese, the suit argues all of those qualifications dwarf any that might be possessed by Gayle, who “has no documented experience in the management of automobile dealerships, football or basketball teams or real estate.” The court documents also said it’s been openly talked about that Gayle Benson has no interests in football, basketball or sports.
In what now seems a preemptive measure, the Saints and Pelicans have stressed that under Gayle’s eventual ownership, the executive leadership of the franchises — headed by President Dennis Lauscha and Mickey Loomis, the football team’s general manager — will remain in place.
Aside from attacking Gayle’s business bona fides, the filing also depicts Tom Benson as someone in the throes of senility, in poor physical health and prone to manipulation. It offers myriad anecdotal examples:
— When he was recently asked who the president of the United States was, he replied “Ronald Reagan” and then guessed “Harry Truman,” according to the suit. The petition does not say who asked him those questions or who was present when he answered. It also claims that Benson shows brief periods of lucidity, but “that quickly turns into confusion.”
— Though her husband had recently undergone knee surgery and a stomach procedure, Gayle supposedly urged him to attend the NFL owners meeting in Atlanta in May, during which New Orleans failed to secure the 2018 Super Bowl. Tom Benson, who was using a walker, fell while stepping off the podium and had to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance. That was followed in the summer by two trips to the emergency room due to altitude-related complications during a portion of Saints preseason training camp held in The Greenbrier golf resort in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia.
— His diet allegedly primarily consists of candy, ice cream, sodas and red wine. Additionally, Gayle has removed photographs of Benson’s family members that were once prominently displayed. She also allegedly prevented him from spending Christmas with his “immediate” family by scheduling an event with certain employees and their relatives.
In the separate lawsuit in Texas, Renee Benson asserts that her father paid neither insurance nor taxes related to real estate assets that were a part of the trust her mother set up. She said her father also failed to pay rent for a hangar in which one of the Benson companies keeps an aircraft.
Judge Thomas Rickhoff soon signed an order temporarily prohibiting Tom Benson from — among other things — removing, transferring or selling assets in the trust Shirley Benson created.
In their New Orleans suit, Renee, Rita and Ryan say they have arrived at this stage “each with a heavy heart.”
But they didn’t get there without at least one of them directing a message to Tom Benson.
Nine days after Benson declared she was never to contact him again, Rita printed out a Catholic News Service blog post titled “Pope Francis’ suggested New Year’s resolutions.” In blue ink, she wrote the following message to her grandfather, who is famously devout:
“Paw Paw, I love you. Your family loves you. We need to all work together, to care for each other. There are no better words to live by than these. I love you. Rita.”