In the sprawling legal battle pitting NFL and NBA owner Tom Benson against his daughter and her children, a new person is overseeing some of the trusts containing nonvoting shares of the Saints and Pelicans that are at the center of the dispute.
San Antonio lawyer Mary Rowe is the new trustee of a group of trusts Tom Benson created in 2012 that benefit his daughter, Renee; his granddaughter, Rita LeBlanc; and his grandson, Ryan LeBlanc, court records show.
Rowe took over those duties from Robert Rosenthal, also a lawyer from San Antonio, who still remains the steward of some trusts that Benson created in 2009 for the benefit of Renee, Rita and Ryan and that also hold nonvoting shares of the Saints.
Rosenthal — who couldn’t be reached for comment — was sued in New Orleans’ federal court on March 10 by Benson, who had appointed him to oversee the various trusts.
Rowe now joins Rosenthal as a defendant in the suit filed by Benson, which is pending.
Unlike Rosenthal, Rowe is not a partner of San Antonio lawyer Stanley Rosenberg, a longtime adviser to Benson. Her biography states she has been with the Kreager Law Firm since September 2007 and that she grew up on a farm in Blanco County, Texas, where Rita and Ryan also grew up and where Renee has a business development.
Before Rowe entered the picture, Rosenthal rejected a proposal by Benson to pull Renee’s, Rita’s and Ryan’s shares in the Saints, Pelicans and other businesses in Louisiana and Texas out of the trusts in return for $449 million in secured promissory notes and the cancellation of $94.5 million worth of debt. The collateral for the notes included the sports franchises themselves.
Benson announced in January that he wanted to alter a plan that upon his death would have made Rita, Ryan and Renee his primary successors. Instead, the twice-widowed Benson said he wants his third wife — Gayle, whom he married in 2004 — to eventually inherit control of everything.
To completely cut Renee, Rita and Ryan off from having any role in his sports franchises, Benson would need to remove their shares of the Saints and Pelicans from the trust funds benefiting them, which were set up to protect them from paying estate taxes. But the law requires Benson to replace anything he takes out of the trusts with assets of equal value.
While Benson’s relatives responded in part by filing a civil lawsuit in New Orleans that questioned his mental fitness to shake up his business affairs so drastically, Rosenthal rejected the billionaire’s proposed asset swaps. He said it was not a fair exchange. In fact, Rosenthal has indicated in documents that he could not deem any offer a fair swap until Benson provided updated valuations of the teams and his other assets.
Lawyers for Benson have said those valuations are ongoing but are a lengthy process. They then sued Rosenthal, asking a judge to permit Benson to extract the Saints’ and Pelicans’ shares from the group of trusts set up for his relatives.
Rosenthal executed documents on March 19 appointing Rowe to succeed him as trustee of the group of trusts created in 2012. Six days later, Rosenthal resigned from that role, and Rowe signed documents accepting the appointment to succeed him. However, the change did not become publicly known at that time.
Benson’s lawyers filed a motion in federal court on April 24 requesting that Rowe also be made a defendant in the case. U.S. District Judge Jane Triche Milazzo granted the motion Wednesday.
Having made their way to various state and federal courthouses in New Orleans and Texas, essentially all of the fronts of the multifaceted Benson legal battle are unresolved.
That includes a lawsuit in Texas in which Renee asked a judge to remove her father as steward of a separate trust set up for her benefit that does not contain any shares of the Saints or Pelicans.
A Texas judge temporarily suspended Benson as trustee of that trust and appointed two other men to serve temporarily in that role. Benson has appealed.