New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson on Friday finalized an agreement settling a lawsuit he filed almost two years ago against the officials overseeing a group of trust funds benefiting his estranged relatives.
Benson's litigation against trustees Robert Rosenthal and Mary Rowe was the last pending legal case related to a bitter family feud that erupted into public view in January 2015.
But the end of the suit filed in New Orleans federal court in March 2015 may not prevent the public from again hearing about some of the uglier allegations that have surfaced during the Benson clan's rift.
Using arguments similar to those they brought up in a failed state district court suit in 2015 challenging Benson's mental competency, his daughter, Renee Benson, and her children, Ryan and Rita LeBlanc, could contest any will drawn up by the family patriarch, now 89, after he dies.
There has been sworn testimony that the Saints and Pelicans owner changed his will to leave control of his billion-dollar business empire to his wife, Gayle, at about the same time that he cut Renee, Rita and Ryan out of his personal and professional life.
Friday's settlement resolved a dispute that largely centered around valuable but non-voting shares in New Orleans' NFL and NBA franchises, which were among the business assets Benson was seeking to remove from trust funds he established for the benefit of Renee, Rita and Ryan.
Terms of the settlement weren't made available, but it came three days before the case was set to go to trial.
The looming trial had prompted attorneys for the NFL and the NBA to notify U.S. District Judge Jane Triche Milazzo of New Orleans that they hoped she would seal certain pieces of "commercially sensitive" evidence from public view.
A previously announced settlement in the federal lawsuit pitting Saints and Pelicans owner T…
Many observers speculated that the evidence in question could shed light on how much money NFL and NBA teams — some of the richest organizations in the world — are earning.
It was revealed in court records a few months ago that the NFL would recommend that its other club owners allow Benson to borrow as much as 50 percent above the league's $250 million team debt limit to facilitate a settlement.
Benson's attorney, Phil Wittmann, declined to say Friday whether his client has had or will have to borrow money to honor the settlement's terms.
In any event, Wittmann said the Saints and Pelicans owner was relieved the case was over and that ideally he would never again have to deal with litigation related to the family feud.
A statement attributed to Benson added, "We have many great projects ahead and look forward to them. In addition, we continue to strive for our No. 1 goal, and that is winning championships in football and basketball."
A statement from Rosenthal and Rowe called the settlement "a winning proposition for the city and people of New Orleans and fans of the Saints and Pelicans everywhere." They described the sports teams as essential to the city's fabric.
They added, "Keeping these two teams in New Orleans and ensuring their future vitality has always been the highest priority for the family beneficiaries and the trustees. We are optimistic about the future success and prosperity of these two franchises."
The central question in the lawsuit against Rosenthal and Rowe was whether Benson had offered assets of equal value — as required by law — in exchange for the business assets he wanted to take out of the trust funds set up for the relatives collectively nicknamed "the three R's."
In addition to shares in the Saints and Pelicans, the other business assets involved in the case were interests in Benson Tower, Champions Square and a parking lot at Poydras Street and South Claiborne Avenue that is used by people who attend the teams' games.
Until the settlement, Rosenthal and Rowe repeatedly argued that Benson had not provided the mandated equivalent value for those assets.
Rosenthal's lead attorney in the case was Kyle Schonekas. Thomas Flanagan represented Rowe.
Milazzo first set the case for trial in June 2016 but then removed it from her docket to facilitate settlement talks. The talks apparently were more complicated than anticipated. When there was no settlement two months later, Milazzo put the case back on her trial docket, a sign some observers took to mean that she was pressing both sides to finalize a deal.
In November, both sides indicated they were close to an agreement. Yet it wasn't until Friday afternoon that the attorneys in the case met with Milazzo in her chambers and presented her with an accord.
Attorneys on both sides of the lawsuit pitting Saints owner Tom Benson against the officials…
Officials had estimated the trial set to begin Monday would have lasted five days.
Benson's side did not list him as a definite witness for the trial, though he was listed as a potential witness. He has not testified in open court during the family feud.
The mental competency lawsuit in which he prevailed was tried entirely behind closed doors. A related suit in San Antonio state court over control of a family trust in Texas that Benson oversaw was settled days before it was due to go to trial last year.
Under that settlement, Renee Benson gained control of the Texas trust fund. The terms of that settlement have never been made public, but it seems that Renee, Rita and Ryan gained control of some family car dealerships in Texas as a result. A family hunting ranch outside San Antonio apparently has come under Ryan LeBlanc's control.
The lead attorney for Renee and her children, Randy Smith, could not be reached for comment Friday.
Renee, Rita and Ryan were fired as executives in Benson's business empire when he ousted them from his life. Of the three, Rita lost the most visible job, having once been a high-ranking Saints and Pelicans official.