Neither the Saints nor the Pelicans anticipate Gayle Benson’s record of being sued numerous times in New Orleans civil court will dissuade either the NFL or the NBA from approving a plan to make her the future owner of the two teams owned by her husband, Tom Benson, a source close to the situation said Wednesday.
The team owners who need to ratify the new succession plan recently revealed by Tom Benson will care more about how Gayle Benson has spent the past 10-plus years “on the arm of the boss, of the king of the castle” of the Pelicans and Saints, than they do about civil claims made against her when she ran an interior design business before she married Louisiana’s lone billionaire, the source said.
Ever since wedding the twice-widowed Tom Benson in 2004, Gayle Benson has been to every meeting of NFL owners. She has sat in on essentially every session that wasn’t exclusive to the NFL’s controlling owners — the group Tom Benson joined after purchasing the Saints in 1985.
Benson served on the NFL’s powerful Finance Committee for more than 20 years before stepping down in 2013, and for three terms he was its chairman. During the last nine years of his tenure, he flew up to New York for monthly committee meetings with Gayle Benson, making it a point to discuss the topics covered in the gatherings to familiarize her with the family business, the source said.
As a result, Gayle Benson has more firsthand exposure to the inner workings of the NFL — including the lobbying done by franchises in order to bring the lucrative rights to host the Super Bowl to their cities — than any owners who have purchased an NFL team within the past few years, the source said.
Benson hasn’t owned the Pelicans as long as he has the Saints, who have made 10 playoff appearances, won five division titles and captured their sole Super Bowl championship under his ownership. Benson purchased the Pelicans in 2012, when they were named the Hornets. But he has similarly tried to keep Gayle Benson as involved as is feasible with the Pelicans, who count NBA superstar Anthony Davis among their ranks.
“She’ll be a great owner,” the source said. “She cares about the legacy of Tom Benson. The long-term stability of the teams is what she’s most interested in.”
Word first spread on Jan. 21 that Benson wished to change a previously approved succession plan that upon his death would have made his granddaughter, Rita LeBlanc; daughter, Renee Benson; and grandson, Ryan LeBlanc, the primary owners of the Saints, Pelicans and other businesses in Louisiana and Texas.
The financial publication Forbes estimates the Saints and Pelicans alone are worth $1.76 billion combined.
After being fired as employees of their family businesses, Ryan, Renee and Rita quickly launched a legal challenge to Benson’s new plans, filing a civil suit on Jan. 22 that alleged the 87-year-old patriarch was being unduly influenced while in a weakened mental and physical state. Benson countered that decisions regarding his franchises and other properties are his alone, and that he reached them after years of seeing that his previously designated heirs were professionally incompetent.
Rita, Renee and Ryan also contend that Benson is improperly attempting to wrest away assets he had folded into an irrevocable trust he had set up for their benefit. Benson argues they’ll still continue to enjoy hundreds of millions of dollars no matter what happens, and one of his lawyers — Paul Cordes — on Wednesday said his client has never ceded a single voting share to anyone, giving him the right to reverse course on anything he wants.
Nonetheless, separate and apart from the litigation that awaits those issues, there are famously thorough vetting processes Gayle Benson must undergo to be accepted as an NFL and NBA owner.
If the leagues’ background checks are as detailed as they’re reputed to be, it’s likely they’ll come across at least 20 or so civil lawsuits in New Orleans that named her as a defendant between about 1987 and 2000, mostly involving interior design projects she or a company of hers oversaw. One judgment rendered against a company belonging to her and an ex-husband found the outfit owed an electrical contractor $5,050 and interest.
In another case that was settled for an undisclosed amount, Gayle Benson was accused of overbilling a client for materials such as expensive rugs bought from a third party to carry out a project with a budget of $130,000 to $150,000 to renovate a portion of a condominium tower.
Foreclosing proceedings in 1999 began on a home Gayle Benson owned in Uptown New Orleans. A similar thing occurred previously on at least two properties she was listed as owning a part of.
But, the source said, the education Gayle Benson has accumulated attending gatherings of league owners and NFL Finance Committee meetings will ultimately dwarf all that in the eyes of anyone on whom she depends for approval.
On Wednesday, Tom Benson’s lawyer, Phillip Wittmann, added, “Any business person is going to have potential litigation with clients — lawyers have it, a lot of folks have it. Shoot, she was in the interior design business — I could see people being dissatisfied with the way a design came out.
“She saw a couple of lawsuits back there — I understand. But all of that was so long ago, and it has nothing to do whatsoever with … the issues in the case.”
Furthermore, the Saints and Pelicans have promised an executive leadership team headed by Dennis Lauscha, the organizations’ president, and Mickey Loomis, the football club’s general manager, would remain intact to work closely with Gayle when she eventually takes over.
In court filings, Benson’s relatives portray Rita as the better choice to be the heir to the sports franchises, given that she spent several years as the teams’ co-owner and vice chairwoman of the board of directors. She went to the same meetings Gayle Benson did.
However, it was at such events that Benson lost faith in Rita’s capabilities, he has suggested in court documents.