Though she was once the apple of Tom Benson’s eye and the heir apparent to his sports franchises, Rita LeBlanc gave her grandfather plenty of reasons to worry about her ability to take over his empire upon his passing, according to some of the people who know both of them well.
When Benson was well into his 80s and still reporting to the office first thing every morning, he frequently had difficulty locating Rita because she had stepped out for one reason or another. She dragged out projects many felt shouldn’t take that long, and at times she appeared to be less than fully engaged in crucial meetings, some said. And it disturbed members of the organizations at all levels that she had a habit of berating the dozens of executive assistants she burned through for things that were outside their control.
Perhaps most troubling of all to the patriarch, multiple observers of the family said, was that Rita, her mother, Renee Benson, and her brother, Ryan LeBlanc, never fully embraced Tom Benson’s third wife, Gayle Benson, whom the two-time widower married in 2004 and whom he has long considered the dearest of life partners.
That was apparently too much for Tom Benson, and last week he set in motion an effort to nix his previously announced plans to leave the Saints, Pelicans and the rest of his billion-dollar business empire with Rita, Renee and Ryan upon his death.
Instead, Benson, now 87, decided that he wanted Gayle to inherit his two pro sports franchises, worth an estimated $1.76 billion, along with his other business properties. And he fired Rita, Renee and Ryan as employees, barring them from various Benson-owned premises in a startingly blunt, terse letter.
“Tom’s family (members) ... have not at all been comfortable with Gayle,” said one friend of the Bensons, who, like most of those interviewed by The New Orleans Advocate, spoke on condition of anonymity. “They should be very happy that their grandfather, their father, has found someone to share these years with, who loves him, who takes care of him.”
Yet Rita, Ryan, Renee and their lead lawyer — Randy Smith — strenuously argue that is not at all what Gayle Benson is doing with her husband.
In the petition they filed Thursday in Civil District Court, they allege that the Saints and Pelicans owner is mentally unfit to make the decision he’s proposing, and they assert that he has been manipulated into his change of plans by a woman who was in debt and had poor credit before she married Benson, Louisiana’s lone billionaire.
Furthermore, Smith maintained, widely circulated rumors of Rita’s lack of support among those who run Benson’s sports empire are fantasy. What’s behind her grandfather’s about-face is simple, he said.
“You do have somebody who’s in declining health and an opportunity,” Smith remarked, referring to numerous emergency room trips Benson has taken since undergoing knee and stomach procedures around May. “The combination could lead to the exact, right moment.”
Smith argues that Benson’s daughter, Renee, should be named guardian of her father’s business interests partially because she is his next of kin. Renee is the daughter of Benson and his first wife, Shirley, who died in 1980.
And while Benson has harbored doubts about his granddaughter’s business acumen, the petition vehemently argues that she is a talented executive who has been vital to the success of the teams, especially the Saints, who have clinched all five of their division titles and captured their sole Super Bowl championship since Benson purchased the team in 1985.
After joining the Saints ful time in 2001, Rita worked in football operations, the finance department and with the franchise’s marketing arm, becoming increasingly visible after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to New Orleans in 2005.
The petition recounts how, at 29, she stood alongside former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue to announce the Saints’ schedule in 2006, a rebirth of sorts after Katrina forced the team to play its entire 2005 campaign away from New Orleans. It notes that Rita landed on Street and Smith’s Sports Business Journal’s annual “40 Under 40” list three times and that her work with a Benson-owned Arena Football League earned her an “executive of the year” award.
Benson at one time seemed confident in her, in public at least, declaring that he and his brain trust were grooming Rita to take over for him and getting the NFL to approve a succession plan.
But those who were around Rita behind the scenes say Benson always harbored doubts about his granddaughter.
Two people who served as executive assistants to Rita said they spent a lot of time answering the same question from Benson: “Is Rita here in the office?”
The answer, both said, was often “no.”
Sometimes, she was on vacation; other times she was just taking midday excursions away from the team’s administrative complex, where her grandfather is a fixture.
“I got the impression from Tom Benson that he was looking for her constantly,” said one of the assistants, who, like the other, voluntarily left her post as Rita’s aide after a relatively short time. “And he couldn’t (ever) find her.”
Others who knew Rita well said that even when she was present, she wasn’t always giving her full attention to the task at hand. On at least one occasion, she crouched in a corner reading a book during a business meeting, a friend close to Benson’s family said. She often texted or fiddled with her phone in the middle of important conversations.
She also got a reputation for taking an extraordinarily long time to complete straightforward tasks, such as approving the design of season tickets or personalized license plates, aggravating those around her.
On one occasion, a former aide said, she was unimpressed with how a small job had been performed by a contractor. When she learned that her assistant had already paid the bill, she tore into the aide.
After an outburst like that, the aides both said it wasn’t uncommon to get a private apology from another Saints executive who witnessed the scene and was embarrassed.
Both of the former assistants who spoke with The Advocate said Rita’s reputation was not unlike that of Miranda Priestly, the villainous fictional magazine editor and central character in “The Devil Wears Prada.” It’s one reason her assistants came and departed as often as they did.
Though the position was called executive assistant, “You were treated like you were there to serve her,” said one of her former aides. And that did not win her much loyalty. Some estimate she had 30 assistants over six years.
It all hit a low point when Tom Benson forced her to take an administrative leave for a period of months in 2012, an episode the club tried to keep quiet. The precise reasons for the leave, which the Saints never publicly acknowledged, were not made clear.
Though Rita returned from the leave, there were hints that some top club officials on the football side still regarded her with suspicion. In 2013, head coach Sean Payton agreed to a contract extension as he returned from a yearlong suspension in the wake of the team’s bounty scandal. But the first draft of his deal included a so-called “poison pill” clause that would have allowed him to leave if Mickey Loomis ceased being the team’s general manager for any reason. Given that it came as Benson got his succession plan approved, the prevailing theory was that Payton wanted the clause to ensure he’d have a barrier between him and Rita in Loomis. The NFL ultimately rejected the language.
Smith, the lawyer for Rita and her relatives, scoffed at the notion that the many personal assistants his client had reflected poorly on her, though he didn’t dispute the numbers themselves.
“Rita worked there for (more than) 10 years — (there were) interns, assistants, lots of comings and goings,” Smith said, adding that he’d wager Gayle Benson had fired a comparable number of employees in her past, some of which she spent as an interior decorator.
Smith also disputed that Payton’s failed shot at the “poison pill” clause had anything to do with Rita. Payton and Loomis liked working with LeBlanc, Smith insisted.
“We are not aware that ... she has (any) issues with either of them,” he said.
Numerous Saints officials did not respond to requests for comment after Tom Benson issued a statement late Thursday decrying Rita, Renee and Ryan’s civil claims about his mental competence as false, though most of the team’s top brass did put out statements supporting Benson’s plan to transfer ownership to his wife.
It’s still unclear whether top club officials had any role in the recent palace coup. But it seems that Benson may have been most bothered by his feeling that Renee, Rita and Ryan were never happy that he married Gayle.
“Tom ... had a lot of personal sadness” after Shirley and his second wife, Grace, died, one close friend of the family said. Those close to the Bensons say it’s Gayle who’s inspired him to burnish his legacy by making the numerous massive charitable donations that he has recently.
As a result of those donations, a cancer center at Ochsner Medical Center in Jefferson as well as the playing field at Tulane University’s Yulman Stadium are named in the Bensons’ honor. Similarly, an unprecedented gift of $11 million he made to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, will get an adjacent stadium named after him.
In Tom Benson’s eyes, Rita, Ryan and Renee viewed Gayle warily. They made pointed remarks about her expensive tastes, one friend said, which were not necessarily extravagant for a billionaire’s wife but stood in marked contrast to the modest spending habits of Benson’s first two spouses.
Another family friend said, “They thought they would be sitting on an empire, a pot of gold — and then Gayle came into the picture, and a lot of that changed.”
So much so that on Dec. 27, Rita, Ryan and Renee received a signed letter from Tom Benson informing them he didn’t want to speak to them or see them around his businesses again. Cited high in the letter was the trio’s supposedly shabby treatment of Gayle.
Asked if one specific incident precipitated Benson’s dissolving ties with his family, Smith said he couldn’t fathom what it would be.
“I am not aware of a particular incident that would be the basis for writing a letter to your child and grandchildren two days after Christmas saying, ‘I never want to see you again,’ ” Smith said. “It makes no sense unless somebody is trying to take control.”
Smith and his clients contend that somebody is Gayle. Prepared statements issued by Benson counter that the proposal to make Gayle his new heir is Benson’s alone.
The Benson family’s friends say it’s a decision he may not have reached had Gayle been received differently by those he’d originally tapped to succeed him upon his death. But even those who know the Bensons don’t all agree about whether a specific incident triggered the sudden ownership shakeup or whether Benson’s change of heart was a gradual one that grew out of his frustration with his family’s inability to get along.
As one Benson friend put it: “It’s very sad they could not work with Gayle — and, more than that, work with Tom.”
Staff writer Gordon Russell contributed to this report.