As he walked into his mental competency trial Monday, Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson seized the chance to answer a reporter’s question, despite pronouncements by his lawyer that he would not speak.
The 87-year-old billionaire bristled when asked whether he is able to continue running a business empire he began building in the 1960s.
“I’ve been running them for 50 years, huh?” he said, holding a black-and-gold walking cane while being helped by his attorney, Phil Wittmann.
A lawyer for the other side also took a moment to address reporters outside the Orleans Parish Civil District courthouse, where the highly publicized family feud was about to be litigated in private. Randy Smith said he didn’t expect the proceedings to “be easy on anybody.” But he said his clients, Benson daughter Renee Benson and grandchildren Ryan and Rita LeBlanc, are acting in the best interests of their loved ones and “all the stakeholders in this.”
“We’re here because we want the best for Tom Benson and his family, and his employees, the Saints, the Pelicans, the city (and) the state,” Smith said. “We have a lot of confidence in this court and in this process.”
Media outlets had appealed Judge Kern Reese’s recent decision to close his courtroom for the trial, but state appellate judges Dennis Bagneris, James McKay and Rosemary Ledet unanimously upheld the ruling Monday afternoon. Case documents also remain under seal.
The media outlets argued that Benson’s trial should be open because he and his sports teams will receive $350 million in state subsidies through 2025, making him a public figure. But Reese agreed with Benson’s lawyers when they argued that closing the courtroom was the best way to protect the Saints and Pelicans owner’s medical privacy.
The trial involves reviewing the findings of three doctors who examined Benson’s mental and physical condition earlier this year. There will also be other witnesses — two on Monday were Benson’s former business associate, Tom Roddy, as well as nurse Takiyah Daniels.
Roddy had worked with Benson since 1972 and until recently was on the board of nearly all of Benson’s businesses. In previous testimony during unrelated proceedings, Roddy called into question Benson’s ability to manage his fiduciary responsibilities and said Benson leaned heavily on others to make decisions.
Meanwhile, Daniels was one of two nurses who were scheduled for depositions ahead of the trial. She has been a registered nurse since 2010, state records show.
In between breaks during the testimony, Benson played it loose with journalists stationed outside the courtroom. As one of his lawyers, Matthew Almon, escorted him to and from the restroom, Benson remarked unprompted, “Y’all can report that I’m walking — damn good.”
Before stepping back into the courtroom, he called out, “All I want is a good football team — and a good basketball team.”
Benson at one point also locked eyes with Daniels and told her, “How you doing, dear?”
Daniels replied, “They told me I had to come.”
Benson then said, “They paying you?”
Daniels responded, “No.”
Earlier, before he entered the courthouse, Benson told reporters gathered around him, “I’m ready. I feel good.”
He also complimented a female reporter on her appearance and said he hoped to get the trial over with as soon as possible. The trial could last through Thursday or Friday.
As news photographers shot video and pictures of him, Benson quipped, “Wait — let me smile.”
A split in the Benson family erupted into public view when he revealed in January that he was barring Renee, Rita and Ryan from participating in his various businesses. Benson’s third wife, Gayle Benson, is now being groomed to take over her husband’s sports teams and other assets in Louisiana and Texas after he dies.
Renee, Rita and Ryan countered by asking Reese to find Benson mentally unfit to make his own business decisions. The squabbling has spurred other lawsuits in New Orleans’ federal court and in Texas.
Gayle Benson did not appear to be among those who went to the courthouse for the trial Monday. Renee, Rita and Ryan have accused Benson’s wife of manipulating her husband and having undue influence over his affairs.
Benson’s relatives declined to answer questions posed to them, deferring to their lawyer, Smith.
Check back with The New Orleans Advocate for more details later.