It was the 2014 Christmas season, and 87-year-old Tom Benson was growing more forgetful, thanks in part to pain medication he was taking after a series of knee surgeries.

Family tensions were running high, too. Rita LeBlanc, Benson’s granddaughter, had been feuding with his wife, Gayle. It had gotten so bad that Gayle had written up a list reminding the twice-widowed Benson why he should be aggrieved — not just toward Rita, but also his grandson Ryan and his daughter Renee. 

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the family patriarch, Rita had secretly recorded a conversation she had with him about why her mother, Renee, had contacted Benson’s bookkeeper directly, instead of going through him.

It was amid this poisonous climate that the owner of the NFL’s Saints and NBA’s Pelicans finally decided to turn his back on the “3 R’s” — Rita, Ryan and Renee, his daughter from a previous marriage — and make Gayle the heir to his billion-dollar business empire. 

The move, which seemed sudden to the public, kicked off a convoluted legal battle pitting Benson against his daughter and her children, who once had been in line to inherit everything but were now fired from their jobs with his businesses and cut off from the head of the family.

The most bitter episode of the saga was their unsuccessful attempt to convince a New Orleans Civil District Court judge that he should restore their standing with Benson on the grounds that he was too mentally enfeebled to alter his succession plans.

That case largely played out in secret. Judge Kern Reese prohibited attorneys from speaking about it, and a highly unusual, closed-door trial took place over eight days in June 2015. Nearly all of the legal documents were kept under seal.

Reese ultimately ruled against the LeBlancs and in favor of Benson, the state’s richest man. Two higher courts left that decision in place, paving the way for Gayle to take over the Saints and Pelicans following her husband’s death in March at age 90. 

Although the case has been cloaked in secrecy, it turns out that written arguments filed by both sides during an appeal of Reese’s decision to the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal were available on the legal research database Westlaw. Those documents, recently obtained by The Advocate, contain the most detailed look yet at what happened behind the curtain.

They reveal the degree of palace intrigue that surrounded Benson in the days before he announced that he was banishing his former heirs from his life and his businesses, and they offer a glimpse at the New Orleans billionaire's actions during the trial.

The law office of the LeBlancs' lead attorney, Randall Smith, declined comment Friday.

Benson's lead attorney, Phil Wittmann, said, "All of this was filed under seal, and I wonder how Westlaw got it. It was not subject to publication." 

Both sides appeared to view the secret recording Rita made of her conversation with her grandfather on Dec. 19, 2014, as a notable piece of evidence.

From her attorneys’ perspective, the recording demonstrated that Benson — already diagnosed with dementia and prescribed medications for Alzheimer’s disease — sounded confused. Her attorneys recounted how Rita also captured the voice of Dennis Lauscha, president of both the Saints and the Pelicans, saying, “You’re dealing with a guy who can’t think because he’s probably forgotten it already.”

Benson’s attorneys, meanwhile, pointed to the recording as evidence of treachery. They said the billionaire businessman had been receiving pain medication through an IV and was in no condition to talk when he was approached by Rita — who had already been on thin ice with her grandfather since he had temporarily suspended her years earlier from her position as a Saints executive.

Benson said the medication was making him feel loopy and repeatedly tried to cut the conversation off, “but she spent 90 minutes” badgering him, insisting that her grandfather was overreacting to Renee’s efforts to get financial information from his bookkeeper, according to Benson’s legal team.

Two days after the exchange, Rita confronted Gayle in a suite during a Saints game and, as Benson’s lawyers described it, “accused her of trying to come between” the LeBlancs and the family patriarch. That episode has long been viewed as the final straw in the family rift.

Another episode described in the documents involved the list Gayle Benson prepared to help her husband remember the reasons he was upset at the LeBlancs, who were accused by Tom Benson's attorneys of being jealous of the relationship he had with Gayle. 

The LeBlancs’ attorneys argued that the list poisoned Tom Benson against their clients. They said many of the items on the list were in Gayle’s words, not Tom’s, and they cited it as evidence that she was exerting undue influence on her frail husband.

Gayle Benson said under oath that she wrote the list at his request.

“He asked me to sit down with paper and pencil and sit in front of him and write some things that he was — that (were) on his mind that he wanted to get on paper, and that’s what I did,” she said.

The records also show that the closed-door trial in Reese's courtroom was marked by flashes of anger from Tom Benson.

At one point, Benson shouted, “Lying bastard!” as one of three psychiatrists who had examined him testified. That psychiatrist, Ted Bloch, had been selected by his estranged relatives. He had a grimmer view of Benson’s memory problems than did the other two psychiatrists, one of whom was selected by Benson’s legal team. The third psychiatrist was picked by the other two.

Benson also once shouted “Bull****!” as Rita discussed the secret recording.

And he announced, “I’m going to kick your ass,” according to the filings, although it’s not clear whom he was addressing. 

“Hold on. Hold on, Mr. Benson,” Reese said at one point. “Sir, you may not like it, like I said the other day, but we have to maintain decorum in this court.”

Benson replied, “Excuse me. ... I didn’t think you could hear me, judge.”

“Well, I did,” Reese said.

The LeBlancs’ attorneys argued that Benson’s comments were “bizarre outbursts,” and signs of something wrong. Benson’s camp replied that they merely demonstrated he was following the trial testimony closely — and disagreeing strongly with some of it.

When the judge ultimately ruled in Benson’s favor, he said he had given considerable weight to the testimony of Benson's former home nurse, Takiyah Daniels.

Reese had previously described how Daniels watched Benson carefully review and sign a letter that declared he was cutting his daughter and grandchildren out of his life.

The newly obtained documents show Daniels also described Benson as being “like ‘Rain Man’ ” with numbers, a reference to a movie about a mathematical savant. He also was able to identify minute errors in reports from subordinates, Daniels recalled.

Benson did not face questioning from either side’s attorneys. Instead, Reese interviewed Benson at Saints headquarters before the trial, which the LeBlancs’ legal team argued was strange, if not unprecedented, for a case of this nature.

Experts have said the LeBlancs have five years to challenge the validity of a will that Benson’s lawyers filed in court shortly after his death. The will appears to make Gayle his prime beneficiary and excludes the estranged relatives by name.

Such a challenge would likely revive some of the same arguments and evidence that Reese considered.

The will was signed a month after Reese ruled in Benson’s favor. A day after his death, Benson’s camp filed it with Reese.

The Saints on Thursday kicked off their first training camp with Gayle Benson as owner.

Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter, @RVargasAdvocate.

(504) 636-7433