Like other octogenarians, Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson is not as sharp as he used to be.
He suffers from short-term memory loss, and while recovering from a recent knee surgery, he required pain killers so strong that they had him feeling foggy for a bit.
Yet, contrary to his relatives’ claims, Benson was in full control when he decided to cut his daughter and grandchildren out of his businesses and his life, an Orleans Parish Civil District Court judge ruled Thursday.
“Thomas Milton Benson Jr. is able to make reasoned decisions as to his person and his property,” Judge Kern Reese said in a four-page document explaining why he wouldn’t declare the 87-year-old billionaire mentally incompetent, as daughter Renee Benson and her children, Ryan and Rita LeBlanc, requested.
Renee, Rita and Ryan had argued that the twice-widowed Benson was enfeebled and was being unduly manipulated by his third wife, Gayle Benson, when he announced in December and January that he no longer wanted his daughter or grandchildren involved with his various businesses or to inherit the businesses when he dies.
While Benson’s relatives can appeal the ruling, there may not be much else they can do to force their way back into the roles they formerly had with the sports franchises and other family businesses in Louisiana and Texas.
The document explaining the ruling also provided some glimpses into a process that has played out mostly in secrecy.
Despite attempts by his estranged relatives to get him to do so, Benson did not take the witness stand during a closed-door trial this month to determine whether he was capable of making his own decisions. But Reese met with Benson at Saints and Pelicans headquarters in Metairie in April, the judge revealed Thursday.
With attorneys for both sides present, Reese spent about an hour questioning Benson.
“The court sat across the desk from the defendant, looked into his eyes, listened carefully to his responses and concluded the capacity to make reasoned decisions was present,” Reese wrote.
But Reese didn’t base his ruling solely on that one session. During the trial, he heard from a dozen witnesses, including three psychiatrists who evaluated Benson.
From two of those psychiatrists, Reese said, he learned that Benson has sustained “a mild cognitive impairment” but nothing that would “rob him of his own volition and ability to make reasoned decisions.”
Dr. John Thompson and Dr. Kenneth Sakauye also concluded that Benson was not susceptible to undue influence.
However, Reese also gave a considerable amount of weight to the testimony of a former Benson nurse, Takiyah Daniels.
Summoned to the witness stand on the first day of Benson’s trial by Renee, Rita and Ryan, Daniels testified that the Saints and Pelicans owner “agonized over distancing himself from his family members” and even wept about it.
Nonetheless, Daniels watched as Benson three times read over a Dec. 27 letter in which he essentially disowned Renee, Ryan and Rita, Reese said.
Renee was dismissed from her duties at her father’s hunting ranch in Texas, his banks and his car dealerships. Ryan was relieved of his role at his grandfather’s ranch and car dealerships.
Rita was gone from her position as a high-ranking executive with the Saints and the Pelicans. Until then, she seemingly was being groomed to take over the sports teams, apparently until she had some kind of confrontation with Gayle Benson during the Saints’ Dec. 21 loss to the Atlanta Falcons in New Orleans.
When Benson was done poring over the letter, he signed it and had it sent off.
Daniels — who worked with Benson from September to March — “testified that no one stood over him while he signed it,” Reese said. “It was his decision.”
Reese apparently wasn’t swayed by the opinion of a third psychiatrist, Dr. Ted Bloch III, who said Benson’s cognitive impairment was “moderate to severe” and urged the judge to strip him of the power to control his businesses.
Bloch was chosen for the proceedings by Renee, Rita and Ryan. Benson’s side selected Thompson. Thompson and Bloch then picked Sakauye.
Other witnesses at Benson’s trial included Renee, Rita, Ryan and Gayle, who is now in line to take over her husband’s sports franchises and other businesses upon his death. A handful of former and current Benson employees, such as Saints and Pelicans President Dennis Lauscha, also testified. But Reese didn’t really delve into what they said under oath.
Reese’s ruling likely surprised few legal observers, given how difficult it is to successfully argue that someone is deserving of what lawyers describe as “civil death.”
“I think it was a very well-reasoned ruling, a very good ruling that we frankly anticipated,” said Benson’s lead lawyer, Phillip Wittmann. “We never thought there was any question.”
That was evident as Benson left the courthouse on the last day of the trial, saying he was confident Reese would rule in his favor just by looking at the judge’s face.
Meanwhile, in a written statement, Benson and Gayle thanked “the entire community for the overwhelming support ... received during this trying time.”
“Through it all,” Benson said, “our fans and our sponsors showed unwavering support for our Saints and Pelicans.”
Randy Smith, the attorney for Renee, Rita, Ryan, said in a statement he was disappointed that Reese did not rule in a way that would allow his clients to “protect their father and grandfather, as well as the teams and businesses.”
He added: “For (Benson’s) sake, and that of the fans, customers and employees, (Renee, Rita and Ryan) will continue to take whatever steps are necessary to assure his well-being and that of the Saints, Pelicans” and other businesses.
The case in Reese’s courtroom was not the only legal battle to spring from the Benson family rift. Other separate but related cases are pending in New Orleans federal court as well as in Texas.
Those mostly center around a group of trust funds created for the benefit of Renee, Rita and Ryan, and some of them contain non-voting ownership shares in the Saints and Pelicans.
If Benson is to completely banish his daughter and children from being at all involved with his sports franchises, he must remove those shares from those trusts and replace them with other assets of equal value.
That had not happened as of Thursday, but there was no denying that Benson had still recorded a resounding court victory before Reese.
“What’s next for Mr. Benson is to put this behind him and go on with his life the way he wants to go on with it,” Wittmann said. “After all, the man is 87 years old, and he has a great career behind him, and a great career still in front of him. He wants to enjoy it.”
Benson got right to enjoying himself Thursday evening. Saints and Pelicans spokesman Greg Bensel published a picture on Twitter showing Benson and Gayle in Maine, as guests at the home of George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush, the former president and first lady.