The San Antonio judge who temporarily suspended Tom Benson as steward of a trust set up for the benefit of a now-estranged daughter turned “Texas law on its head” by handing control of the trust to two high-priced lawyers instead of taking less severe measures, attorneys for the owner of the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans argue in a 131-page brief asking that the action be reversed.
The brief to the Texas 4th Court of Appeals was released Tuesday.
The summary of Benson’s argument states that it was “highly irregular” for Bexar County Probate Court Judge Tom Rickhoff to temporarily transfer stewardship of the trust to lawyer Art Bayern and former San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger, who are each charging $600 an hour for their work.
Rickhoff got Bayern and Hardberger involved after a closed-door meeting with attorneys representing Benson and his daughter, Renee, at the conclusion of a court hearing last month. He issued an order giving Bayern and Hardberger oversight of the trust three days later.
Benson’s appeal contends that Rickhoff’s appointments were “made without notice that the trial court was considering such a drastic remedy; without argument, briefing or the presentation of evidence on that issue; and without reference to the principles of law governing such an action.”
The lengthy brief adds, “The parties have been dealing with the fallout of that sudden announcement ever since.”
Prepared by Texas lawyers David Beck, Russell Post, Troy Ford and Owen McGovern, Benson’s brief notes that Rickhoff has issued three orders since Renee asked him to remove her father as steward of the trust and assign the decision-making powers to her. The last order “constitutes an abuse of discretion” for three reasons, Beck and his colleagues allege.
“First, it fails to require that (Renee Benson) meet her burden to present evidence of a breach of trust,” they wrote. “Second, it fails to require evidence of an irreparable harm and the inadequacy of less intrusive remedies. Third, the (most recent) order was issued following a series of repeated violations of Mr. Benson’s right to notice and due process, and it is void for failure to comply with the mandatory requirements of Texas (law).”
Benson’s lawyers are asking the Texas appeals court for a quick decision. They even want to forgo oral arguments, alluding to the $9,600 a day that the trust’s new stewards are charging to handle decision-making.
Renee Benson’s lead lawyer in Texas, Bennett Stahl, said he must file a reply to the appeal by March 26.
“Our brief will show in detail how the decision of the probate judge is fully supported by the evidence and the law, and should be affirmed on appeal,” Stahl said.
The trust at the center of the appeal was set up by Benson’s first wife and Renee’s mother, Shirley Benson, who died in 1980. It 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.
It was enveloped in a bitter dispute that saw Renee Benson, along with her children, cut off in late December from any future dealings with the Saints, Pelicans and other assets belonging to her father.
Upon his death, the twice-widowed businessman instead wants his third wife, Gayle Benson, to inherit the reins of a business empire Forbes estimates is worth almost $2 billion.
Renee and her children — Ryan LeBlanc and Rita LeBlanc — also have filed a lawsuit in New Orleans Civil District Court aiming to have the 87-year-old Benson declared mentally unfit to make business decisions. Judge Kern Reese has directed three physicians to conduct a mental evaluation of Benson. They are expected to report their findings to him this month.