The defense team for Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson began making its case Friday afternoon that the 87-year-old is still sharp enough to call the shots in the business empire he’s been building for 50 years — despite claims to the contrary from his estranged daughter and grandchildren.
Saints President Dennis Lauscha was the first witness to take the stand for Benson’s camp on the fifth day of testimony in the closed-door Civil District Court trial. He was questioned for about 31/2 hours Friday and will return to the witness stand next week.
The fact that the proceedings have gone this far could be a positive sign for Benson’s relatives. Ordinarily, the defense would file a motion after the plaintiffs rested their case, asking the judge to dismiss the suit on the grounds that the plaintiffs had failed to prove their case.
So the fact that the case continued Friday afternoon, with Benson’s side calling witnesses, apparently means Judge Kern Reese wants to hear from both sides before he makes a decision.
Of course, the details, like all evidence and testimony in the closed-door trial, are under seal.
It’s not clear yet whether Benson will testify. Next week, however, may bring testimony from his wife, Gayle Benson.
Lauscha was preceded on the stand this week by seven witnesses called by Randy Smith, an attorney for Benson’s daughter, Renee Benson, and her children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc.
The trio is asking the court to find that Benson didn’t have the mental capacity to decide several months ago to dismiss them from their roles in his business empire and shut them out of a new succession plan that will leave his sports franchises and other assets in Louisiana and Texas to his third wife, Gayle Benson, upon his death.
In court documents, the jilted heirs have said Gayle Benson has manipulated and exerted undue influence over the twice-widowed Benson. They also have argued that the billionaire’s mental health has been deteriorating. Smith has said repeatedly that Renee, Rita and Ryan have brought their case because they care about Benson’s well-being.
All three of the relatives, as well as a former nurse and business associate, took the stand this week. A former housekeeper was heard via video link.
“Only the judge knows if we did what we set out to do,” Smith said after resting his case. “But the case is far from over. We feel like we did what we needed to do.”
Before the floor was turned over to Benson’s attorney, Phillip Wittmann, the judge considered two motions, one from each side. The details of those motions are sealed.
But it’s common after the plaintiff rests for the defendant to submit a “motion for a directed verdict” asking the court to dispense with the rest of the trial because the plaintiff has failed to prove its claims. If such a motion had been granted, the case would have concluded after the relatives finished presenting their case.
Smith would not say what kind of motion the plaintiffs filed, but he did say he would like Tom Benson himself to take the stand, and he held out the possibility that it might happen before the trial ends.
“We ultimately rested our case without him taking the stand,” Smith said, adding, “We do have the right to rebuttal after the defense case.”
Smith said he “would like to hear what (Benson) has to say.”
As he walked into the courthouse Friday, Benson said he was feeling good and “always ready for a fight.” He also raised his walking cane in the air and told reporters it was “just for show.”
The fifth day of the trial opened Friday morning with continuing testimony from one of the three psychiatrists who evaluated Benson earlier this year. Dr. Ted Bloch III spent about seven hours under questioning Thursday and Friday before relinquishing the stand to Lauscha.
Lauscha became the president of the Saints and Pelicans in 2012.
He has been with the Saints since 1998, holding the titles of treasurer, vice president, senior vice president and executive vice president before taking the top spot.
He is part of a small group of executives who are close to Benson and, until recently, to his estranged relatives.
Earlier this year, Lauscha exchanged a series of emails with Renee Benson, who was asking him to help her schedule a meeting with her father.
“I would like to visit my dad today if possible,” Renee Benson wrote to Lauscha on Jan. 5. “I believe someone has told security to not let me in the building. … So I need you to somehow get me in at the appropriate time.”
Lauscha later responded that he had tried at least three times to get Benson to agree to see her.
“He continues to say that he does not want to meet with you, Rita or Ryan,” Lauscha wrote. “I will continue to ask. Sorry.”
The trial is in recess for the weekend and will resume Wednesday.
Smith said Benson’s attorneys have indicated they will call Gayle Benson as a witness next week.
She has not been at the courthouse since the trial began Monday.
She would have been barred from sitting in on the proceedings because she is not a party to the case.
The defense also is expected to call Dr. John Thompson, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Tulane University.
Thompson, Bloch and a third psychiatrist, Dr. Kenneth Sakauye, of the University of Tennessee, all evaluated Benson earlier this year and submitted their findings to Reese.
Bloch was picked by Benson’s relatives and Thompson by Benson’s camp.
Sakauye, selected by Thompson and Bloch, may also testify next week.