No neutral outsider has spent more time with Tom Benson recently than New York Times football writer Ken Belson.
And after reporting a story whose primary purpose was to address allegations by Benson’s estranged relatives that the billionaire is too enfeebled to make his own business decisions, Belson had this to say about the owner of the Saints and Pelicans: “For a man (who’s) 87, I think he is mentally capable.”
He added, “I feel comfortable in saying, if his mind had really diminished, I would have been able to notice it.”
The New York-based journalist spoke to WWL Radio talk show host Angela Hill and The New Orleans Advocate separately this week about shadowing Benson over the course of a few days in February.
Belson said he interviewed Benson for a total of about two hours over three days and watched him preside over a pair of executive meetings. The only differences he noticed from interactions they had in previous years were mostly physical and would be expected for a man in his late 80s.
“He certainly has slowed,” Belson said of Benson, who has had seven medical procedures done on his knee recently. “His walking is not 100 percent. He had a cane. His wife, Gayle, was helping him (move around).”
Yet Benson was able to hold detailed conversations in interviews, recalling stories “from years ago.” Occasionally, he wasn’t precise on numbers and names in retelling those stories, but Belson said he was struck by just how much Benson remembered.
In the executive meetings, Belson said, Benson was engaged, asking follow-up questions about information that had been presented. Benson also inquired about topics that had been discussed in prior gatherings with his executives, such as budgets pertaining to upgraded scoreboards for the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and the Smoothie King Center, where the Saints and Pelicans play their home games, respectively.
“He ran those meetings,” Belson said. “He was listening. ... He wasn’t prompted. He wasn’t nodding off.”
Benson was less quick to cite exact numbers and dollar amounts than executives Mickey Loomis and Dennis Lauscha, Belson said. But being “concerned about things like budgets — that came across as ... he was fairly lucid,” Belson said.
A rift involving Benson’s family became headline news after the billionaire announced he wanted to bar his daughter, Renee Benson, and her children, Ryan and Rita LeBlanc, from any future role with his sports franchises and other businesses in Louisiana and Texas. The twice-widowed Benson had once tapped Renee, a daughter from his first marriage, and his grandchildren to inherit control of his businesses when he dies, but in January, he said he had decided he wanted his third wife, Gayle, to eventually assume the reins of his various properties.
Renee, Rita and Ryan subsequently filed suit seeking to have Benson declared mentally unfit to make such drastic business decisions.
A lawyer for the relatives didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment Wednesday, but Renee, Rita and Ryan have argued that Benson is being manipulated by Gayle and others as his mental and physical health declines. They have also alleged in court filings that Benson may appear lucid for brief periods of time, but that such states ultimately devolve into confusion.
Belson was aware of the claims that Benson had good and bad days, and he said he was glad he saw Benson on multiple, consecutive days and in various settings.
As for Gayle, Belson said she sat off to the side during one of his interviews with Benson. She didn’t try to answer for her husband, and she only spoke up when questions were directed at her, Belson said.
In the meetings Belson observed, Gayle did things like ensure her husband had enough Coke in his glass but otherwise silently listened to discussions.
“She’s normally sitting there (by Benson), ... (but) she was not acting like a surrogate owner or anything like that,” Belson said.
It is rare for Benson’s media handlers to give reporters the type of access the New York Times got for the story.
Nonetheless, Greg Bensel, a spokesman for the Saints and Pelicans, said the organizations worked with Belson because “it was important — if this writer was coming (to town) for this whole week — he had full transparency and full access to Mr. Benson.”
“When (Belson) left, I shook his hand and said, ‘If you think Mr. Benson doesn’t appear to be all there, write it,’ ” Bensel said. “ ‘Write what you saw.’ ”
Belson said that’s exactly what he did.