Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson is seeking to move a legal battle with his now-estranged daughter over a trust set up for her benefit from a state court in Texas to a federal one there.
In a filing Wednesday, Benson’s lawyers said they want the case switched to the federal court in San Antonio for a couple of reasons.
One is that two men who were appointed in February to temporarily oversee the trust sued the NFL and NBA owner in his personal capacity on March 2. The original action that produced their appointments — filed by Benson’s daughter, Renee, who asked a Probate Court judge in Bexar County to remove her father as overseer of the trust benefiting her — named Benson as a defendant strictly in his official capacity as the steward of the trust.
The other reason is that the suit lodged by Art Bayern and Phil Hardberger — the temporary, appointed overseers of the trust — essentially asked that Benson be forced to give up a share of his stock in a company that holds five car dealerships he owns in both New Orleans and San Antonio.
Benson’s attorneys say that means the action from Bayern and Hardberger drastically changes the scope of what Benson was first dealing with when Renee sought to have him suspended as steward of a trust created by her mother, Shirley Benson, who died in 1980.
“Faced with this radically altered action against his personal assets ... Mr. Benson now seeks to exercise his right to remove this case to federal court,” Wednesday’s filing said.
The filing comes as Benson attempts to remove various assets, including non-controlling ownership shares in New Orleans’ NFL and NBA franchises, from a group of trusts set up for the benefit of Renee — a daughter from his first of three marriages — and her children, Ryan and Rita LeBlanc.
The ownership shares in the sports teams do not reside in the trust created by Shirley Benson. But in their lawsuit, Hardberger and Bayern assert that the Shirley Benson trust benefiting Renee owns half of Bensco Inc., the holding company for the car dealerships.
Hardberger and Bayern allege the other half of Bensco Inc. is owned by the group of trusts benefiting Renee and her children, which were created separately from the Shirley Benson trust; are overseen by Robert “Bobby” Rosenthal, who was appointed for that role by Tom Benson; and have some of the non-controlling shares in the Saints, Pelicans and other businesses.
Benson’s filing Wednesday says he in fact owns the half of Bensco Inc. that Hardberger and Bayern allege belong to the group of trusts overseen by Rosenthal.
Separately, in federal court in New Orleans, Benson has sued Rosenthal. Rosenthal has so far blocked Benson’s attempt to remove the shares in the Saints, Pelicans and other businesses from the trusts they’re in, arguing that Benson has not provided something of equal value in return, which under the law he must do.
Benson maintains in his lawsuit that $449 million in promissory notes — backed by the various businesses themselves and other real property he seeks to exchange for the assets he wants out of the trusts — indeed represent equal value. But valuations on the assets Benson wants out of the trusts are ongoing, and Rosenthal said he can’t gauge whether the trusts are receiving something of equal value in return until those valuations are completed.
While the dispute with Rosenthal is a separate issue, it factored into Wednesday’s filing because Hardberger and Bayern’s lawsuit cited Benson’s alleged “failure to provide ‘equivalent value,’ ” Benson’s attorneys said.
A family feud involving Benson has been headline news since the billionaire announced in January that he wanted to bar Renee, Ryan and Rita from any future role with his sports franchises and other businesses. The twice-widowed Benson had previously designated Renee and her children to be the primary inheritors of his business empire when he died, but he said he’s decided he wants his third wife, Gayle, to eventually assume the reins of his various Louisiana- and Texas-based properties.
Ensuing legal wrangling between Benson and his relatives has spurred actions in various state and federal courthouses in New Orleans and Texas.
One of the responses from Renee was to ask a Texas judge to suspend her father as overseer of the trust set up by her mother and to transfer the decision-making powers to her. The judge suspended Benson as overseer of the trust but did not give that job to Renee, assigning it to Hardberger and Bayern instead.
Benson soon filed an appeal of that decision, although on Tuesday he indicated he had no objection to a request from Hardberger and Bayern to pay off a debt of about $207,000 to the company that holds the Saints.
On yet another front of the legal battle, a pending lawsuit in Orleans Parish Civil District Court by Renee and her children seeks to have the 87-year-old Benson declared mentally unfit to make business decisions.