Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson didn’t take the witness stand for his closed-door mental competency trial, which concluded Friday, but he didn’t mind telling the public afterward how pained he was by the proceeding that pitted him against his daughter and her children.
“To have your kids turn against you — that’s for the birds,” Benson said as he left the courthouse.
Benson also said he felt confident the ruling Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese is expected to issue in the case by June 19 will be in his favor. “Aw, hell — I already know what the decision is,” said Benson, who added that he was about to leave for vacation. “I can tell by his face.”
Meanwhile, the attorney representing Benson’s daughter, Renee Benson, and her children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, again dismissed the notion that the lawsuit was an act of betrayal.
Randy Smith said his clients’ sole interest is protecting Benson, who they allege is too enfeebled to make his own business decisions anymore.
“They’re committed to doing the right thing,” Smith said. “They love the Saints. They love the Pelicans. They love New Orleans. We’re just trying to do what’s right, and we feel like that’s what we’ve done here.”
Asked if he had any reaction to Benson’s “for the birds” remark, Smith said, “That’s sad.”
Prior to the trial, lawyers for Renee Benson and her children filed a motion asking Reese to let them call Benson as a witness. If Benson wasn’t made available to testify, the motion asked that Reese consider whether the billionaire’s lawyers were withholding key evidence in the case.
It was never made clear how Reese disposed of that motion.
Reese could have questioned Benson privately in his chambers to protect him from cross-examination, if he so chose. But neither side would speak about what level of interaction Benson may have had with Reese throughout the proceeding.
Benson’s trial began June 1, with testimony being heard on eight separate days. Witnesses included Renee, Rita, Ryan and the twice-widowed Benson’s third wife, Gayle.
In December and January, Benson fired Renee and her children as employees and announced that he no longer wanted them to have anything to do with the various businesses he owns in Louisiana and Texas or to inherit the businesses when he dies. He alleged they had proved to be incompetent and that they had treated Gayle rudely.
Benson’s relatives fired back by filing a lawsuit seeking to have the 87-year-old family patriarch declared mentally incompetent to make such a decision.
They also alleged that Gayle Benson had manipulated her husband and exerted undue influence on him before he effectively cut his relatives out of his life.
As things stand now, Gayle Benson is in line to inherit control of her husband’s business empire, including his sports franchises.
Other witnesses at the trial included three psychiatrists who examined the Saints and Pelicans owner prior to the proceedings. A handful of former and current Benson employees, such as Saints and Pelicans President Dennis Lauscha, also testified.
One thing both sides in the dispute agreed on was how emotionally taxing the trial was. One lawyer emerged after closing arguments saying, “Well, it has been a long few days.”
Another lawyer exhaled and said, “It’s ... over,” pausing between the two words.
The lawyers’ support staff then wheeled out more than 30 boxes of documents over the next several minutes. Each paper in those boxes remains under a court seal mandated by Reese.
Following Reese’s decision, either side can seek a review of his ruling by the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal.
Asked if there is any chance Benson and his relatives could make peace and end the family feud, Smith said, “Ryan, Renee and Rita have always wanted to sit down with the people on the other side and try to work through these issues. The lack of working things out is not coming from us.”