SAN ANTONIO — A Texas judge is expected to appoint a former mayor of San Antonio and a local attorney here to jointly take over a trust set up for the benefit of Tom Benson’s estranged daughter Renee — effectively booting Tom Benson as trustee for now.
Bexar County Probate Court Judge Tom Rickhoff is expected make the order official after a hearing on Monday, the former mayor, Phil Hardberger, said.
The news came as a surprise Thursday evening. Rickhoff said initially on Thursday in open court that he had tapped Hardberger to “assist” in resolving a bitter dispute between Tom Benson and Renee Benson over who should control the trust.
The judge called Hardberger “possibly the best friend in San Antonio that New Orleans ever had as he welcomed the Katrina refugees with great graciousness.”
But at some point during a subsequent meeting with Hardberger, local probate attorney Art Bayern and attorneys for both sides, it was concluded that Hardberger and Bayern would take over decision-making for the trust.
Hardberger confirmed those details after the meeting, saying he and Bayern would act as “co-receivers.” Attorneys for Tom Benson and Renee Benson would not discuss details of the meeting.
“We stand in the shoes now of the trustee by order of the court,” Hardberger said. “In short, we’ll make decisions on all the assets.”
Hardberger is stepping into a broader conflict between Benson and his daughter over the future ownership of the Saints and Pelicans sports franchises.
Benson announced last month that he was making his wife Gayle his successor, cutting out granddaughter Rita LeBlanc, who was widely expected to assume control of the professional football and basketball teams, Renee Benson and grandson Ryan LeBlanc.
All three have been barred from future dealings with the teams or any of Benson’s other assets.
In response, the three ousted heirs filed a petition in Orleans Parish Civil District Court seeking to have the 87-year-old declared mentally unfit to make business decisions.
Separately, Renee Benson asked the Texas court to freeze the assets in a trust created for her by her mother, Shirley Benson, who died in 1980.
Tom Benson is the steward of that trust, but a temporary restraining order is now in place that will keep him from making any decisions about the assets.
Hardberger will have no role in deciding the future ownership of the Saints. His role will be limited to managing the assets in the Texas trust, he said.
The trust includes shares in Bensco Inc., which owns several car dealerships, a 97 percent interest in Lone Star Capital bank, about $5 million in cash and real estate in Louisiana and Texas, including the Benson family ranch in Johnson City, north of San Antonio.
Renee Benson was in court this week to ask Rickhoff to extend that restraining order.
Rickoff called Hardberger and Bayern in after listening to a day and a half of testimony from one side arguing that Tom Benson was mentally unfit and reckless with the trust’s assets and the other saying he was responsible and of sound mind.
Rickhoff said he was not making a determination about Tom Benson’s mental capacity and would leave that for a New Orleans court to sort out.
Hardberger said he received a call from Rickhoff at about 2 p.m., about the time Rickhoff and the attorneys adjourned into a private session, asking him to help out with the case.
He said it will be his job in the near term to assess the assets of the trust and then to do all the things the trustee would do, including paying various bills and looking after assets like Lone Star Bank, where he said he might make appearances at board meetings.
“A receiver’s basic job is to protect the assets of the trust so that they are not squandered through either negligence or intention or it just happens,” Hardberger said. “Our job is to make sure it doesn’t just happen.”
Hardberger said his role won’t include making any determinations about who is right or wrong in the dispute between Tom and Renee Benson and his job won’t involve helping the parties come to a final resolution.
During a hearing on Wednesday, Renee Benson and her attorneys argued that Tom Benson’s mental health has been deteriorating. Tom Roddy, a business associate, testified that Tom Benson hasn’t been paying bills on time and recently transferred $25 million out of a bank owned by the trust and into another bank.
On Thursday, Tom Benson’s lawyers produced witnesses who said Benson was mentally fit and had done no harm to the trust.
Two longtime employees of Tom Benson, the president of Lone Star bank and Tom Benson’s attorney and close friend Stanley Rosenberg all testified to being in contact with Benson over the last two months, as his relationship with his daughter and grandchildren were crumbling. And they said he has, to all appearances, remained competent and confident in those interactions.
They described a man who was deliberately taking steps to cut Renee Benson and her children out of his businesses after a falling out with his daughter. None of them knew specifics about the discord.
Rosenberg, who has known Benson for more than 55 years, said Benson phoned him just after Christmas and said “he was having trouble with his children.” Rosenberg said Benson asked him to draft the letter that went to grandchildren saying he was cutting them out of his businesses and his life.
Renee Benson has said she doesn’t believe her father wrote the letter and suggested that he was perhaps coerced.
“I wrote the letter in as similar words as he stated to me, as I always do when he tells me something,” Rosenberg said, adding, “He made it very clear to me. He said ‘Rosenberg, this is what I want.’ ”
Overall, the testimony presented Thursday suggested that Benson spent the better part of December and early January making moves to carve his daughter and grandchildren from his business empire.
Mary Polensky, who has worked as Benson’s bookkeeper for nine years and shared an office with Renee Benson in San Antonio, was told to move out of that space and into Benson’s private condo in San Antonio on Dec. 3.
The call came two days after Polensky said she had been asked by a longtime Benson employee, Roddy, for a list of all of the 40 accounts she handles for Benson and another list of the people authorized to sign checks for those accounts. Roddy is president of Renson, a company owned by Renee Benson that manages the five automobile dealerships that make up Bensco Inc. Polensky testified that Roddy made the request on Renee Benson’s behalf.
Instead of handing over the information, Polensky said she called Tom Benson for approval as she normally does. He doesn’t normally turn down requests to supply Roddy and Renee Benson with information about the companies, but he declined this one, Polensky said.
Benson, Polensky said, told her to tell Renee Benson to call him if she wanted that information.
Renee Benson testified Wednesday that she did talk to Benson that day, but she did not mention the request. She said she flew to New Orleans the next day, along with Roddy, because she was concerned about her 87-year-old father’s health.
Tom Benson told Polensky to move out of the office she shared with them a day later.
“He said that he was tired of them trying to get information from me … about this stuff,” Polensky said.
She moved into Benson’s condo in San Antonio, with instructions not to talk to Renee Benson and Roddy or to tell them where she had gone.
Meanwhile, Lone Star Capital President and Chief Executive Officer Danny Buck said he received a phone call from Benson on Dec. 6, asking if his deposits were “safe,” Buck said.
Buck said Benson told him he was having problems with his family but did not elaborate.
A few days later, Buck said, Rosenberg called and told him that Benson might move a large sum of money out of the bank. Benson transferred $25 million out of Lone Star Capital and into Frost Bank.
Renee Benson’s attorney has pointed to that transfer as evidence that Tom Benson should no longer manage the trust because it weakened the value of the bank, a trust asset.
Buck, under questioning from Renee Benson’s attorney, Bennett Stahl, acknowledged that the transfer of such a large sum is not good for the bank.
“It’s not a good thing. We were prepared for it,” Buck said. “But it’s not a good thing for the bank to lose that amount of deposits.”
When asked if he would be nervous if the institution where he banked were to lose more than 10 percent of its deposits, Buck responded “Sure.” He added: “It sure doesn’t look good.”
But on redirect from Benson attorney Phil Wittman, Buck said there has not been a run on the bank since the transfer, and he said Benson has told him that he intends to return the money to the bank after a special shareholder’s meeting is held to kick Renee, Rita, Ryan, Roddy and Bill McCandless, who has not made an appearance at these proceedings, off of the bank board.
Under questioning from Stahl, Buck testified that Renee and Roddy were “very active” members of the board.
“It’s never good to have a disruptive board,” Buck said. “We have other board members that remain. But no, I don’t think it’s a good thing.”
The morning’s final testimony came from Rick Hood, who has managed Mercedes-Benz dealerships for Benson in New Orleans and San Antonio.
Hood said he has talked to Benson near daily since December, when Benson notified Renee, Rita and Ryan that they were banned from his automobile dealerships.
“He said ‘You’re the only person I trust and I want you to watch over (the dealerships) for me,’ ” Hood said.
Hood said Benson told him he was having problems with Renee but did not elaborate.