A New Orleans judge ruled Tuesday that the courtroom will be closed for the trial of a lawsuit pitting Tom Benson against his daughter and her children, who are questioning the Saints and Pelicans owner’s mental competency.
The trial — set for June 1 — follows a mental evaluation performed on Benson earlier this year by three doctors, Orleans Parish Civil District Court spokesman Walt Pierce said.
Judge Kern Reese made the ruling to prevent testimony about the 87-year-old franchise owner’s health from becoming public, and it comes after a request to close the courtroom that Benson’s attorneys made earlier this month.
Lawyer Randy Smith, who represents the relatives with whom Benson is feuding, opposed closing the courtroom.
“It’s revealing and hypocritical that after months of issuing press releases and limiting Tom Benson to cameo appearances that the attorneys for ... Tom Benson now want to keep all the sworn testimony of multiple witnesses, not just the medical ones which deserve protection, from the public,” Smith said.
Benson’s lead lawyer, Phillip Wittmann, countered, “The judge applied basic Louisiana law ... that allows the judge to close the courtroom to protect privacy concerns of the defendant. It is a perfectly acceptable thing to do.”
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Benson’s attorneys are scheduled to appear in federal court in New Orleans to argue in favor of similarly closing the proceedings in a lawsuit involving a group of family trusts containing non-controlling shares of the city’s NFL and NBA franchises.
In filings ahead of Wednesday’s hearing, set for 11 a.m. before U.S. Magistrate Joseph Wilkinson Jr., Benson’s attorneys have said this is necessary to protect “highly sensitive and confidential information relating to his business operations and finances, including ... valuations of certain assets such as the New Orleans Saints and the New Orleans Pelicans.
“These are private business interests and their financial information is not in the public domain.”
One of the defendants in the lawsuit, Robert “Bobby” Rosenthal, opposes closing the proceedings — but not because Benson has received millions of dollars in subsidies from the state of Louisiana. In a pending motion, Rosenthal is challenging the New Orleans federal courthouse’s jurisdiction over him, in part because he resides in Texas, where the trusts he oversees were created.
“If this court determines that it has personal jurisdiction over Rosenthal, Rosenthal will negotiate and execute a protective order in this case,” read documents arguing against closing the proceedings. “But, at this time, he is unable and unwilling to consent to the jurisdiction of this court by entering into Benson’s proposed protective order.”
Both Tuesday’s development and Wednesday’s hearing are part of a sprawling legal dispute that became public after the twice-widowed Benson in January announced he didn’t want his daughter from his first marriage, Renee Benson, or her children — Rita LeBlanc and Ryan LeBlanc — to participate any longer in the businesses he owns in New Orleans and Texas.
Instead, Benson said, he wants his third wife, Gayle Benson, to assume control of everything upon his death.
If Benson is to completely remove Renee, Rita and Ryan from any future dealings with the Saints and Pelicans, he must remove their shares of the teams from trust funds benefiting them and replace them with assets of equal value. Benson sued Rosenthal in March after Rosenthal rejected a proposal by Benson to swap Renee’s, Rita’s and Ryan’s shares in the teams and other businesses in return for $449 million in secured promissory notes and the cancellation of $94.5 million worth of debt.
Benson at that time had not provided valuations of his sports franchises, which his attorneys have said were ongoing. Rosenthal said he couldn’t permit an asset swap until those valuations were provided.
Mary Rowe has since been added to the lawsuit as a co-defendant with Rosenthal. In April, Rowe took over for Rosenthal in overseeing trusts benefiting Renee, Rita and Ryan that contain shares of both the Saints and the Pelicans.
The dispute between Benson and his spurned relatives has spawned a number of other civil actions in state and federal courts in New Orleans and San Antonio, all of which are unresolved.
One is the lawsuit before Reese in which Renee, Rita and Ryan contend that Benson is not mentally competent enough to alter the future plans for his business empire. Filings made in that case since April 23 have been under seal.
In Louisiana, it is not unusual for judges to seal cases and proceedings where a defendant’s mental competence is at issue, estate planning and administration specialist Linda Melancon of Baton Rouge said.
Another Benson-related case, in San Antonio, centers on the control of a trust created for Renee’s benefit by her mother. Benson was temporarily suspended as steward of that trust, and he is challenging a judge’s decision to give oversight of it to former San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger and estate lawyer Arthur Bayern.