Writer doesn’t have training, knowledge to back up opinion of Tom Benson, relatives argue _lowres

Pictured from left, Tom Benson, Gayle Benson, Renee Benson, Rita Benson LeBlanc and Ryan LeBlanc

A New York Times writer who recently spent time with Tom Benson for a story “has no training ... or access to medical records or evaluations” to back up his opinion that the 87-year-old owner of the Saints and Pelicans is mentally capable of handling his business affairs, a lawyer representing Benson relatives feuding with the family patriarch said Thursday.

“We are disappointed that a New York reporter who spent minimal time with Mr. Benson ... would insert himself into a discussion (a judge in New Orleans) ordered to be had with trained medical professionals,” Randy Smith, the lead attorney for Benson’s daughter, Renee, and her children, Rita LeBlanc and Ryan LeBlanc, said in a statement.

“Mr. Benson had the opportunity to demonstrate his competency in a Texas court (in February) but opted to not appear, and instead provided an ‘interview’ in a controlled environment with his handlers. The New York reporter’s comments are not appropriate, on many levels,” the statement said.

Smith’s remarks referred to New York Times football writer Ken Belson, who over the course of three days in February interviewed Benson for a total of about two hours and watched him preside over a pair of executive meetings.

Belson this week spoke to WWL Radio and The New Orleans Advocate about his impressions of Benson, whose daughter and grandchildren have alleged that he is too enfeebled to make his own business decisions.

Among other things, the writer said this of Benson: “For a man (who’s) 87, I think he is mentally capable. ... I feel comfortable in saying, if his mind had really diminished, I would have been able to notice it.”

Smith’s statement referred to a court hearing in Texas that involved a trust set up by the twice-widowed Benson’s first wife, Shirley, for the benefit of their daughter, Renee. While Benson could have testified at the hearing, he was not required to, and he didn’t.

What was at issue in that hearing was a request from Renee to have her father suspended as overseer of the trust, not his mental competence, said Phillip Wittmann, a lawyer for the NFL and NBA owner.

Wittmann added that absolutely “no restrictions” were placed on the access writer Belson was given while shadowing Benson.

“It was not controlled,” Wittmann said. “It was wide open — (Belson) was told to write what he saw. We turned him loose to go do it.”

A rift involving Benson’s family has dominated news headlines since the billionaire announced in January that he wished to bar Renee, Ryan and Rita from any future role with his sports franchises and other businesses in Louisiana and Texas. Benson had once chosen Renee and his grandchildren to inherit control of his businesses when he dies, but in January he said he had decided he wanted his third wife, Gayle, to eventually assume the reins of his various properties.

Ensuing legal wrangling between Benson and his relatives has spurred actions in various state and federal courthouses in New Orleans and Texas.

One front of the legal battle centers around a pending lawsuit filed in Orleans Parish Civil District Court by Renee and her children that aims to have Benson deemed mentally unfit to make business decisions. As part of that lawsuit, a judge ordered Benson to undergo a medical evaluation.