Next week will be unusually busy for the principals in the legal dispute that erupted after Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson moved to cut his daughter and her children out of his life more than a year ago.
There will be mediation talks Monday and Tuesday in a lawsuit that Benson, 88, filed in New Orleans federal court against the overseers of a group of family trusts benefiting his daughter and grandchildren that contain nonvoting Saints and Pelicans shares, a Benson attorney confirmed Friday.
Then, on Thursday, there will be oral arguments in the appeal that Benson’s relatives filed after an Orleans Parish Civil District Court judge found Benson was mentally competent when he said he wanted to break ties with daughter Renee Benson and grandchildren Ryan and Rita LeBlanc.
Further, in a court battle over control of a Texas trust fund that was set up to benefit Renee, with her father as administrator, Benson must submit to questioning by his daughter’s attorneys no later than Thursday.
Benson’s attorney, Phil Wittmann, said Friday that a time and place for the deposition had been selected, but he would not reveal the details because of instructions from the San Antonio judge presiding over the case.
The two sides in the Texas case have talked at least once about mediating a settlement in the case, which is set to go to trial Feb. 1, but neither side has commented publicly on the likelihood of such a settlement.
The complex legal battle began after Renee, Rita and Ryan received a letter in December 2014 ordering them never to come around Benson or any of his businesses again. The twice-widowed Benson accused his relatives — all of whom worked for him or his various businesses — of treating his third wife, Gayle, rudely.
He later announced he had decided to leave control of his almost $2 billion Louisiana and Texas business empire after his death to Gayle and not to Renee, Rita and Ryan, as had long been the plan.
Renee and her children filed a lawsuit in New Orleans challenging Benson’s mental competency. They said he was being unduly manipulated by others into estranging himself from his relatives while in a weakened mental and physical state, but Judge Kern Reese ruled in favor of the family patriarch after a closed-door trial in the summer.
Though he was questioned privately by Reese, Benson did not testify during the trial.
Randy Smith, the lead attorney in Louisiana for Renee and her children, said he was looking forward to appearing before the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal in the case because “the true condition of Tom Benson should come to light.”
“We never had the opportunity to question Tom Benson, despite the trial court allowing those with financial motivations to put words in his mouth,” Smith said Friday. “Renee, Rita and Ryan love their father/grandfather and hope the courts will grant him the protection he deserves.”
Separately, Renee asked San Antonio Probate Court Judge Tom Rickhoff to remove her father as overseer of a trust established by her late mother, Shirley Benson. She accused her father of making decisions that damaged the fund.
Benson has defended his management of that trust, which contains stock in real estate and businesses such as car dealerships and a bank but none in his sports teams. Among other things, he said he had loaned a significant amount of money to the trust and was owed at least $17 million by it.
Nonetheless, Rickhoff has suspended Benson as overseer of the trust and temporarily assigned those duties to two receivers. Those receivers on Friday reported that, following a legal and financial analysis of the trust, they did not believe Benson is owed any money.
Wittmann declined to comment on that finding or others in the receivers’ report.
Regarding the case pending in New Orleans federal court, Benson has asked Judge Jane Triche Milazzo to approve his swapping out some of the assets in the trusts for others he claims are of equal value, such as promissory notes.
Attorneys for the overseers of those trusts argue that Benson is not offering equal value in his proposed swap, as he is required to do.