The NFL will play a role in the Saints' ownership succession plan _lowres

Rita Benson LeBlanc, co-owner of the New Orleans Saints, walk on the sideline before an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in New Orleans, Sunday, Oct. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)

Tom Benson can leave ownership of the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans to whomever he pleases when he dies, but the decision is not entirely up to him.

Under the proposed succession plan announced by Benson this week, his wife, Gayle, will succeed him as owner of the two franchises. Previously his granddaughter, Rita LeBlanc, was viewed as the heir apparent.

For Gayle Benson to take control of the franchises, the owners in both leagues would first have to approve the transition. In the NFL, 24 of the 32 owners have to approve her before Gayle Benson could take control of the Saints. For the Pelicans, 23 of 30 votes would be needed from the league’s board of governors for her to be approved as owner.

Through spokesman Brian McCarthy, the NFL said it has been made aware of Tom Benson’s succession plan.

“We are aware of the intent of the transaction, and it is under review for the appropriate league approvals,” McCarthy said.

When asked whether the league would wait until ownership needs to change hands or whether it would immediately begin reviewing the proposal, McCarthy said, “It is under review now.”

Three spokesmen for the NBA did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In 2012, the NFL approved a plan that would have allowed his daughter Renee Benson, and grandchildren Rita LeBlanc and Ryan LeBlanc to take over as owners of the Saints in the event of Tom Benson’s death.

Gayle Benson now will be subjected to a thorough vetting process, the goal of which is to uncover any red flags in her personal and financial histories. Anything that could be considered a concern or an embarrassment to either league could lead to her being disqualified.

The NFL’s vetting process is widely considered to be the most thorough of the four major sports leagues, but there are times when things sneak through. Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam was unanimously voted in by the other owners after purchasing the Browns for $1 billion in 2012. But the NFL was apparently unaware that he was under investigation from the FBI and IRS for fraud and conspiracy stemming from his other business dealings.

A few issues that could immediately arch eyebrows can be found in the pages of a lawsuit, filed against Tom Benson, 87, by Rita LeBlanc, Renee Benson and Ryan LeBlanc, which claims Tom Benson is incompetent and unable to make his own decisions — including one to leave Gayle Benson, 67, control of the sports franchises.

The lawsuit claims Gayle Benson was in “significant debt and had limited credit” before meeting Tom Benson in 2004. It also alleges she has never “owned, operated, or managed a substantial business enterprise and has not received any formal training on how to do so.” The Saints and Pelicans are worth a combined $1.7 billion, according to Forbes estimates.

The lawsuit also states she tried to persuade Tom Benson into purchasing the Fair Grounds Race Course and Slots, even though NFL owners are prohibited from being involved with gambling.

Doug Thornton, regional vice president of SMG, the company which operates both the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and the Smoothie King Center, recently told The Advocate that he is fine with whatever outcome emerges from this situation.

“Essentially the same people who were running the show for the Saints and Pelicans yesterday will be running the show tomorrow,” Thornton said. “Those are the persons we deal with on a day-to-day basis. So from that perspective, it really doesn’t change things. The Saints are committed here through 2025, and the partnership between Mr. Benson, SMG and the state has never been stronger. We respect his decision and know that it is one he did not take lightly. We also consider it an internal matter.”

Unfortunately for the Bensons, the NBA, NFL and court system do not view it the same way. Soon, all three will start poking their noses into the Benson family business, and their findings will determine whether Gayle Benson ultimately succeeds her husband.

The Advocate’ Ted Lewis contributed to this report.