Once presented as the heir to her billionaire grandfather’s sports franchises, Rita LeBlanc spent more than eight hours on a witness stand in New Orleans this week presumably telling a closed courtroom that Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson was not in a clear state of mind when he decided to oust her from his business empire a few months ago.
LeBlanc’s testimony Tuesday and Wednesday was the first time she has spoken under oath in the bitter legal battle pitting her; her mother, Renee Benson; and her brother Ryan LeBlanc against Tom Benson.
She testified for about three hours Tuesday afternoon and more than five hours Wednesday, the third day of a trial meant to determine whether the family patriarch can keep calling the shots at his businesses.
With reporters and the public barred from the courtroom, the substance of her testimony couldn’t be known Wednesday. However, Rita LeBlanc spent more time under questioning than any of the five witnesses who preceded her.
The protracted testimony was, perhaps, a testament to the close relationship she once had with the man she has affectionately referred to in personal correspondence as “Paw Paw.”
Rita was, after all, among the highest-ranking executives working in her grandfather’s NFL and NBA franchises until six months ago, when she, Renee and Ryan were dismissed as Benson employees and publicly accused of professional incompetence.
The 87-year-old Benson’s trial is expected to last at least through Friday and could stretch into next week.
Ryan LeBlanc spent 45 minutes testifying Wednesday afternoon after his sister finished on the witness stand. He is slated to complete his testimony Thursday and cede the stand to at least two psychiatrists seen at the courthouse Wednesday, Dr. Ted Bloch III, of New Orleans, and Dr. Kenneth Sakauye, of the University of Tennessee.
A third psychiatrist, Dr. John Thompson, of Tulane University, is also expected to testify at some point.
A former Benson business associate and a nurse took the stand Monday, when video testimony from a former housekeeper also was presented. On Tuesday, Renee Benson spent four hours testifying about her father in what her and her children’s lawyer, Randy Smith, called a “grueling” and “emotional” session.
Nothing suggested Rita’s experience was any easier.
“Anybody who has been on (that) stand for a few hours is probably happy that it’s done,” Smith said Wednesday afternoon.
Having joined the administrative staff of New Orleans’ pro football team full time in 2001, Rita LeBlanc, now 38, eventually ascended to the position of co-owner and vice chairwoman of the board for the Saints and the Pelicans. She appeared three times on Street and Smith’s Sports Business Journal’s annual “40 Under 40” list of people to watch and even won an “executive of the year” award for her work with a Benson-owned Arena Football League team.
Around June 2014, one year before Rita would testify in her grandfather’s mental competency trial, the twice-widowed Benson sent the NFL a document declaring that when he died his controlling ownership shares in the Saints would go to a trust set up for the benefit of his granddaughter; Renee, his daughter from his first marriage; and his grandson, Ryan.
Rita would represent the Saints at NFL meetings, the document said.
Much, though, would change in the ensuing months. Alleging that their performance at work had disappointed him, Benson fired his daughter and grandchildren from their roles in his various businesses.
Rita was booted from both the Saints and the Pelicans, surrounded by rumors that she had alienated her colleagues, was routinely absent from the office, tarried on projects and had even been suspended for a period of time.
Renee was out after working for her father’s hunting ranch in Texas, his banks and his car dealerships. Ryan, too, was dismissed after dedicating his career to his grandfather’s ranch and car dealerships.
Furthermore, Benson revealed in January, he didn’t want Renee, Rita or Ryan to inherit control of his businesses in Louisiana and Texas when he died. He said his third wife, Gayle Benson, would assume the reins of everything when he was gone.
Renee, Rita and Ryan responded by filing a lawsuit in Orleans Parish Civil District Court seeking to have Benson deemed mentally unfit to make decisions pertaining to his businesses. Among their contentions was that Gayle Benson had manipulated her husband and unduly influenced him to cut out his other relatives and make her his primary heir.
Judge Kern Reese subsequently ordered Benson to undergo an evaluation performed by three doctors: one chosen by his camp, another selected by his jilted relatives, and a third picked by the first two physicians.
Renee, Rita and Ryan named Bloch, a veteran geriatric psychiatrist based in New Orleans. Benson’s side selected Thompson, the chairman of Tulane’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. Bloch and Thompson then chose Sakauye, the co-chairman of Tennessee Health Science Center’s Department of Psychiatry in Memphis and a former professor at LSU’s Health Sciences Center School of Medicine in New Orleans.
At the end of Wednesday’s hearing, Sakauye walked out of the courtroom with Benson and his lawyers. The Saints and Pelicans owner briefly put his arm around Sakauye as they walked to a set of elevators and chatted.
Neither Rita, Renee nor Ryan was looking forward to testifying about Benson, Smith has said repeatedly. Yet they felt they had to protect the best interests of their family, including Tom Benson himself, Smith has said.
Benson’s lawyers have not made many statements to the media. However, the Saints and Pelicans owner has frequently bantered with reporters stationed at the courthouse, telling them that the trial seems to be going well from where he’s been sitting.
On Wednesday, Benson said the only problem was that the trial was eating up too much of his time. “I’ve got better things to do,” he said.
Smith also had comments about the trial’s slow pace.
“The trial is definitely taking longer than expected,” he said. “It’s going to go into next week for sure.”
Gayle Benson has not been present at the trial. It is not clear whether Benson will testify, though on Tuesday he said he was ready to do so if called to the witness stand by his lawyers.
No matter how the family feud plays out, one longtime Saints season-ticket holder known for making colorful poster-board signs and taking them to games showed up at the courthouse Wednesday to tell Benson he stood with him.
Holding a sign that read, “Mr. B We Support U ‘Finish Strong’ (Signed) The Fans,” Larry Rolling approached the Saints and Pelicans owner as the trial’s participants left the court building for lunch and said, “Mr. Benson, we’re here to support you. The fans support you.”
Benson took Rolling’s hand and said, “Thank you.”