Despite recently announcing his intention to alter a succession plan that would have left New Orleans’ NFL and NBA franchises to his daughter and her children upon his death, Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson had never publicly said he’d long doubted that they were fit to lead sports teams valued at more than $1.7 billion combined.
That changed Tuesday, when Benson’s lawyers — in a court filing contesting his relatives’ claims that he’s not in an adequate mental state to make such drastic business decisions — said daughter Renee Benson, granddaughter Rita LeBlanc and grandson Ryan LeBlanc had never managed to convince him of their competence even after years of being groomed to one day assume the reins of the Benson business empire.
“After years of concern and misgivings about (Renee’s, Rita’s and Ryan’s) abilities to completely participate in and ... take over the management of his businesses, Mr. Benson made the deliberate, reasoned and difficult decision to change course and to name as his successor his loving wife, Gayle Benson, who has stood by his side and assisted him in his personal and business dealings for over a decade,” said the New Orleans Civil District Court filing prepared by the Saints and Pelicans owner’s attorneys Phillip Wittmann, James Gulotta Jr. and Matthew Almon.
Associates of Benson’s family had previously said as much about Renee, Ryan and Rita, who as co-owner and vice chairwoman of the board had attained a high ranking in the Saints and Pelicans organizations before she, her brother and her mother were fired as employees of the sports franchises and other Benson businesses in late December.
Yet it wasn’t until Tuesday that Benson officially endorsed that notion in court papers bluntly saying Renee, Rita and Ryan “never rose to the task” as employees.
Nonetheless, as his family feud intensifies, Benson’s filing took care to point out that Rita, Ryan and Renee “are still beneficiaries of various trust interests that Mr. Benson has established for them, and they will continue to enjoy the hundreds of millions of dollars they have been given.”
Referring to the Saints and the Pelicans, the filing added, “They simply will not have the specific assets they would like to have.”
Tom Benson last week announced he would seek to alter the succession plan that would have made Ryan, Renee and Rita the primary inheritors of his pro ball teams as well as various other businesses he has built since he started his career as a bookkeeper and manager at a Chevrolet dealership in his hometown of New Orleans in 1948.
Benson eventually became Louisiana’s sole billionaire, thanks largely to his purchase of the Saints in 1985 and the Pelicans when they were still the Hornets in 2012, and on Jan. 21 he revealed he wanted Gayle Benson — whom he married in 2004 — to take over for him when he dies.
A source with knowledge of the situation said Tuesday that “there was too much at stake” to leave things in the hands of those he’d originally tapped, primarily Rita, because “she never was able to prove that she could handle it — for many, many reasons.”
Tom Benson “has always analyzed what would be the best decision for the legacy of these teams,” said the source, who insisted the Saints and Pelicans owner continued to have the final say on the franchises’ major decisions.
Ryan, Renee and Rita quickly launched a legal challenge to Benson’s new plans, filing a civil suit Thursday that alleged the 87-year-old family patriarch was being unduly influenced while in a weakened mental and physical state. They also contend that Tom Benson is improperly attempting to wrest away assets he had folded into an irrevocable trust he had set up for their benefit.
Benson’s reply on Tuesday said that Ryan, Renee and Rita lack the legal basis for their main goal, which is to empower Renee to make Benson’s decisions for him in part because she is his next of kin. The Saints and Pelicans owner’s counsel argued that is a most extreme step requiring more than mentioning Benson’s age and providing anecdotes about things like his forgetfulness, as were done in the relatives’ suit.
Benson’s filing vigorously disputes that his health is not being cared for because he has undergone knee and stomach procedures and has logged multiple emergency room visits in recent months, all of which were cited in his relatives’ suit. Benson’s filing counters that his medical visits prove he and those around him are trying to keep him in the best health possible.
The filing also directly attacked one of the more salacious allegations in Ryan, Renee and Rita’s claims: that Tom Benson’s diet primarily consists of candy, sodas, red wine and ice cream. The filing said Benson has hired a nutritionist to help him with his diet, “rendering (his daughter’s and her children’s) claims about his eating habits even more absurd.”
Separately, an NFL source addressed another widely-circulated claim from Benson’s relatives: that the Saints and Pelicans owner recently couldn’t name the U.S. president. The source on Tuesday explained that episode occurred when Benson — after having his stomach and knee procedures — attended the NFL owners meeting in Atlanta in May, during which New Orleans failed to secure the right to host the 2018 Super Bowl. Tom Benson was using a walker at the time and fell while stepping off the podium.
Before being taken to the hospital in an ambulance to be treated for a concussion, a paramedic examining Benson asked him questions such as where he was and who the president was, the source said. The source said Benson got the question about where he was right, but he missed the one about who the president was, guessing Ronald Reagan and Harry Truman instead of Barack Obama within earshot of several people, including Rita LeBlanc and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Before filing his formal response to their claims Tuesday, Tom Benson had said in prepared statements that any decisions related to the succession plan are his alone. He also repeatedly said that an executive leadership team headed by Saints and Pelicans President Dennis Lauscha and the football club’s general manager Mickey Loomis would remain intact, and it would work alongside Gayle Benson.
Tuesday’s filing showed Benson on Jan. 7 executed a power of attorney appointing Lauscha and Gayle Benson as his co-agents “to jointly act on his behalf with regard to his business affairs and property in the event he is unable to do so.”
That was done in the presence of a physician, 10 days after Benson had signed a communique informing his former heirs that they were no longer welcome to speak with him or appear at his businesses.
“It should be noted,” the filing said, “that both (Gayle Benson and Lauscha would have to) act together to take any action.”
Two days before Benson replied in court to his clients, lawyer Randy Smith in an email admonished New Orleans journalists and their readers, viewers and listeners against merely accepting as fact that Rita, Renee and Ryan were ousted after much discussion.
Note: This post was updated with more information since it was first published.