Attorneys for family members of Tom Benson who were shut out of a new succession plan for the Saints and Pelicans owner filed suit Thursday afternoon seeking to have Benson declared mentally incapacitated and thus unable to make such a decision on his own.
The petition, filed by Benson’s daughter and two grandchildren in Civil District Court and allotted to Judge Kern Reese, argues that the 87-year-old Benson should be examined by an independent geriatric psychiatrist specializing in determining mental capacity and that medical records should be produced to help a judge make a decision on the matter.
“Sadly, the Benson family was forced to take this action in the best interests of Tom Benson and his legacy, the customers of the Benson family automobile dealerships, the employees of all the family enterprises, and the multitude of Pelicans and Saints fans,” said lawyer Randy Smith, who is representing Benson’s now-estranged relatives.
The petition suggests Tom Benson’s adopted daughter, Renee Benson, should be appointed to oversee her father’s business interests because she is his next of kin. Renee is the mother of Ryan LeBlanc and Rita LeBlanc — who had been listed as the Saints’ and Pelicans’ co-owner and vice chairwoman of the board until Wednesday.
Ryan LeBlanc has mostly been involved in car dealerships that Tom Benson also owns. Renee Benson has been involved in various aspects of her billionaire father’s business empire.
Benson on Wednesday revealed that he wanted his third wife — Gayle, whom he married in 2004 — to take control of his sports properties upon his death, setting the stage for a battle over the professional sports teams between Gayle and his daughter, granddaughter and grandson. In 2012, Benson had the Saints get a plan approved with the NFL that proclaimed Renee Benson, Rita LeBlanc and Ryan LeBlanc would be his successors in the event of his death. The league reaffirmed that plan last year, the lawsuit in New Orleans civil court contends.
Any change in Benson’s succession plan for the Saints would require approval from 24 of the 32 NFL owners, a league spokesman told The New Orleans Advocate.
An exhibit in the court filing shows Benson sent a signed letter on Dec. 27 to his relatives saying they had become “offensive” and did not “act in an appropriate manner,” creating a heartbreaking family situation he would not tolerate. He then demanded they cease all contact with him, and he banned them from entering Saints and Pelicans facilities or attending games. He also banned them from offices, car dealerships and television facilities he owns.
Rita LeBlanc had long been seen as Tom Benson’s eventual heir, first interning with the Saints in 1998 and later ascending to the No. 2 spot of both New Orleans’ football and basketball teams. But she is no longer affiliated with the Saints or the Pelicans. Neither are Ryan or his mother, Renee, who was adopted by Tom Benson and his first wife, Shirley.
In a statement distributed Thursday, Tom Benson said he had “thought about and prayed about (altering the succession plan) for a while now.”
“This is about the legacy of these two teams and everything we have done for the good of the city of New Orleans and our region — my primary goal is to give the organization the foundation to live on after me for many, many years,” Tom Benson said.
For her part, Gayle Benson said in a statement, “The most important thing for me is to continue to secure (Tom Benson’s) legacy in the city he loves, New Orleans, forever, and we will do that.”
Tom Benson hasn’t been in the best health since a fall during the NFL owners meeting in Atlanta in May, during which New Orleans failed to secure the 2018 Super Bowl. That fall occurred after he underwent knee surgery, and it was followed in the summer by more than one trip to the emergency room due to altitude-related complications during Saints preseason training camp, held in The Greenbrier golf resort in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia.
The petition says that Benson’s mental health has also been deteriorating. When he was recently asked who the president of the United States was, he first replied “Ronald Reagan,” and then guessed “Harry Truman,” according to the petition. It does not say who asked him those questions or who was present when he answered.
Other claims and allegations in the petition that question Benson’s competence include:
— In the summer of 2014, at the urging of Gayle Benson, Tom Benson attempted to purchase the Fair Grounds Race Course and Slots, despite it being illegal for NFL owners to have gambling interests.
— His diet consists primarily of “candy, ice cream, sodas and red wine.”
— Gayle Benson has removed photographs of Tom Benson’s family members that were once prominently displayed. She also allegedly prevented him from spending Christmas with his “immediate” family by scheduling an event with certain employees and their relatives.
The petition claims that Benson shows brief periods of lucidity, but “that quickly turns into confusion.”
Meanwhile, in probate court in San Antonio, where Benson also has business interests, the NFL and NBA owner’s daughter on Wednesday submitted a petition for a preliminary injunction requesting that she be made responsible for a separate testamentary trust created by Shirley Benson, who died in 1980. That filing reads, “Renee seeks no monetary recovery against her father. Renee asks for equitable relief from this court to preserve and manage the trust pending final hearing.” Judge Thomas Rickhoff signed a temporary restraining order freezing the assets related to the trust, records show.
Benson purchased the Saints in 1985 and the Hornets — now the Pelicans — in 2012. Originally founded in 1967, the Saints have made each of their 10 playoff appearances, clinched each of their five division titles and captured their sole Super Bowl championship under Benson’s ownership.
The financial success of both the Saints and Pelicans franchises — particularly the football team — has made Tom Benson the wealthiest person in Louisiana and the state’s only billionaire. The business publication Forbes estimates the Saints are worth $1.11 billion and that the Pelicans are worth $650 million, meaning the Bensons are feuding over a combined $1.76 billion.
In their petition, Rita LeBlanc, Renee Benson and Ryan LeBlanc say they filed it “each with a heavy heart.”
Prior to that, Rita LeBlanc printed out a Catholic News Service blog titled “Pope Francis’ suggested New Year’s resolutions” and in blue ink wrote the following message to her grandfather, who is famously devout:
“Paw Paw, I love you. Your family loves you. We need to all work together, to care for each other. There are no better words to live by than these. I love you. Rita.”
The note is attached as an exhibit in the lawsuit.
Saints and Pelicans spokesman Greg Bensel said the organizations had no comment on Thursday’s civil court filing.