Tom Benson mental competency trial to resume Thursday afternoon; Gayle Benson testified for several hours Wednesday _lowres

Advocate staff photo by John McCusker -- Rita Benson LeBlanc and Renee Benson arrive at court Wednesday, June 10, 2015.

Tom Benson’s daughter and grandchildren are appealing last week’s ruling that found the Saints and Pelicans owner is mentally competent to make his own business decisions.

Filed Wednesday, the appeal from daughter Renee Benson and her children, Rita LeBlanc and Ryan LeBlanc, says Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese should not have denied them the chance to question Tom Benson before and during his mental competency trial this month.

“Although we have the utmost respect for the court, the refusal of Tom Benson’s counsel to allow Tom Benson to take the witness stand further evidences Tom Benson’s diminished capacity and serves to suppress the truth,” Randy Smith, the lead lawyer for Renee, Rita and Ryan, said in a statement.

Smith said his clients would further argue to the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal that Reese relied “upon only select portions of the testimony” heard during the closed-door trial. Without mentioning names, Smith also said physicians who participated in the trial rendered opinions that “employed insufficient methodology and applied improper standards.”

Benson’s lead lawyer, Phillip Wittmann, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The effort to get Reese’s ruling overturned in the appellate court is no surprise. While experts say the standard to get someone declared mentally incompetent is high, Reese’s judgment was a serious blow to Benson’s relatives, who don’t have many options left to get back into the family businesses from which they were ousted several months ago.

In December and January, Benson fired his daughter and her children as employees in his billion-dollar business empire. He also announced that he no longer wanted them to inherit the various businesses he owns in Louisiana and Texas when he dies, which had once been the plan.

The twice-widowed Benson alleged that Rita, Renee and Ryan had proved to be professionally incompetent and that they had treated his third wife, Gayle, rudely. Gayle Benson is now in line to assume control of her husband’s assets upon his death.

Renee, Rita and Ryan fired back by filing a lawsuit alleging that the 87-year-old Benson was too mentally enfeebled to make such drastic decisions for himself. The relatives also alleged that Gayle Benson had manipulated her husband and exerted undue influence on him before he effectively cut his other relatives out of his life.

While Reese never subjected Benson to questioning by his jilted relatives’ lawyers, the judge met with the Saints and Pelicans owner in April. Reese in his ruling said Benson showed he was mentally competent in that session and that evidence heard during the subsequent trial demonstrated the same thing.

The judge reached that conclusion despite conceding that Benson suffers from short-term memory loss, as is common in octogenarians.

At the trial, there was testimony from a dozen witnesses, including three psychiatrists who evaluated Benson. Dr. John Thompson and Dr. Kenneth Sakauye concluded that Benson could make his own decisions and was not susceptible to undue influence, Reese said in his ruling.

A third psychiatrist, Dr. Ted Bloch III, said Benson had a “moderate to severe” cognitive impairment and urged the judge to strip him of the power to control his businesses.

Bloch was chosen for the proceedings by Renee, Rita and Ryan. Benson’s side selected Thompson. Thompson and Bloch then picked Sakauye.

Throughout, Smith has maintained that his clients are motivated by both love for Benson and concern for employees and supporters of his sports teams and other businesses.

“In years past,” Smith said, “Tom Benson observed contemporaries in similar states of mental decline and urged his family to act for him if he ever found himself in such a vulnerable state.”

Other disputes related to the family rift are still pending in New Orleans federal court and in Texas.