After shifting to San Antonio for a few days, the legal feud pitting Tom Benson against his daughter and her children over the future ownership of the Saints, Pelicans and other businesses is headed to a civil courtroom in New Orleans on Tuesday morning.
Judge Kern Reese is scheduled to hear oral arguments beginning at 9 a.m. on competing motions. One is from Benson arguing that a lawsuit from his relatives seeking to have him declared mentally unfit to make his own business decisions lacks the legal basis necessary to proceed. The other — from his estranged relatives — contends that Benson should undergo a psychiatric examination to determine his mental fitness.
The lawsuit against Benson was lodged after the 87-year-old billionaire revealed around Jan. 21 that he wanted to alter a succession plan that would have made his daughter Renee, granddaughter Rita LeBlanc and grandson Ryan LeBlanc the principal heirs to his sports franchises and other assets. Instead, Benson has said he wants to leave everything to his third wife, Gayle, whom he married in 2004.
Benson has justified the switch by saying that for years he has steadily lost faith in his ousted heirs’ professional competence and by citing what he perceived to be their poor treatment of Gayle.
The heirs have defended their professional records by detailing their accomplishments in various parts of Benson’s business empire: Rita as an executive with the Saints and the Pelicans; Ryan with a hunting ranch and auto dealerships; Renee with all of those businesses as well as some banks.
In their lawsuit, Renee, Ryan and Rita say Tom Benson has been unduly influenced while in a weakened mental and physical state. Represented by lawyers Randall Smith and Stephen Gelé, they’ve requested in writing that the judge make Benson demonstrate why he should not be examined by geriatric psychiatrist Dr. Ted Bloch III.
Benson’s lawyers — among them Phillip Wittmann, James Gulotta Jr. and Matthew Almon — have countered that Rita, Renee and Ryan have done little more than mention their family patriarch’s advanced age and provide anecdotes that portray him as forgetful or dealing with physical ailments.
The evidence presented so far is simply not enough to force Benson to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, a step they argue is overly intrusive.
They have said Benson is willing to meet with Reese privately to show that his mental state is adequate. Or, failing that, they would at least prefer a psychiatrist who wasn’t chosen by his relatives.
In response, Benson’s relatives argued it would be improper procedure to let him meet in chambers with Reese, though they conceded the final decision is with the judge. They also proposed a confidentiality order that would keep any materials produced by a mental evaluation under seal. They provided an affidavit signed by Bloch that said the veteran psychiatrist had not been paid or employed by the relatives, and therefore he was entirely independent.
Throughout the legal tussling, Benson’s relatives have attempted to conduct family visits with him. But Benson has steadfastly refused to interact with them since sending a signed message on Dec. 27 admonishing them to never again speak with him or show up at any of his businesses.
“Renee, Rita and Ryan … wish to … simply … visit their beloved father and grandfather,” Bennett Stahl — a lawyer for the relatives in Texas — wrote to Wittmann on Jan. 29. “Renee and Ryan are willing to travel to New Orleans for the meeting, given Mr. Benson’s declining health.”
Renee and Ryan live in Texas, while Rita lives in Metairie.
Wittmann wrote back to Stahl that same day, “I have discussed your request with Mr. Benson, and he has no desire to speak with them in view of the allegations they have made against him.”
Following that exchange, there was a two-day hearing before a San Antonio judge concerning a temporary restraining order that had been put in place to prevent Benson from taking further action to remove business assets from a Texas trust set up to benefit Renee and her children.
On Monday, Bexar County Probate Court Judge Tom Rickhoff ordered ex-San Antonio mayor Phil Hardberger and local attorney Art Bayern to jointly take over the trust’s decision-making — a wide-ranging set of duties — until the dispute is resolved in Louisiana. The order was signed over an objection from Tom Benson’s attorneys, Stahl said Monday. Stahl said he and his associates were “very pleased” with the ruling.
The order authorizes the receivers to “take and have complete and exclusive control, possession and custody” of the trust and the assets held within it. The order also allows the receivers to hire or fire any officer, contractor, employee or agent of the trust.
Hardberger and Bayern also have been ordered to file an inventory of the items in the trust with the court within 30 days.
The order is conditioned on the receivers and Renee Benson each filing a $500,000 bond with the court. The receivers’ bonds would be paid with funds from the trust.
New Orleanians may best remember Hardberger — a lawyer and former judge — as the mayor of San Antonio when the Saints played three home games there in 2005, having been displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Hardberger unsuccessfully pushed to make that arrangement permanent, infuriating many Saints fans.
Benson’s camp had previously said it was confident Hardberger could be neutral in the duties Rickhoff assigned him despite his failed efforts to relocate the Saints almost a decade ago.