Tom Benson

Tom Benson

It always produces a frisson when the secrets of the rich and famous are inadvertently revealed, all the more so when they involve a dispute over a last will and testament.

The pleasure is a guilty one, but there is a voyeur in us all.

Noone was richer or more famous in Louisiana than Thomas Milton Benson Jr. when he died in March, leaving the Saints, the Pelicans and the rest of the business empire once regarded as granddaughter Rita LeBlanc's birthright, to his third and then-wife Gayle.

When Benson announced three years ago that he was revising his posthumous management chart, Rita, her brother Ryan and their mother Renee filed suit. They alleged that Benson, then aged 87, was too gaga to know what he was doing or to resist the nefarious machinations of his wife, but their request that the courts intervene was rejected.

That was about all we knew, because trial Judge Kern Reese locked press and public out of the courtroom, gagged the attorneys and sealed a bunch of records before ruling Benson competent. Now some of those records have fallen into The Advocate's hands anyway.

Outbursts in court, secret recordings, more: Inside look at Tom Benson family's legal battle

Reese's orders may sound like an un-American way to achieve justice, but the Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure does not require interdiction hearings to be public. Benson was not even asked to testify, or to answer questions from attorneys. Reese was so keen to spare Benson indignity, or even inconvenience, that he went to Saints headquarters and interviewed him there.

It turns out that Benson himself was not inclined to keep proceedings dignified. After Reese ruled that Benson was capable of conducting his own affairs, the parties, in pleadings to the court of appeal, provided summaries of the in-camera hearing.

Somehow, those pleadings found their way onto a database with public access.

They reveal that Benson exclaimed “Bulls---” as Rita testified, called a shrink retained by the LeBlancs a “lying bastard” and threatened “to kick your ass,” although it's not clear whose ass he had in mind. Reese instructed Benson to observe courtroom decorum, while the Leblanc attorneys argued that such uncouth outbursts suggested they were right to question his mental state. His attorneys were more inclined to view his cantankerous interjections as proof that he possessed the mental acuity to follow proceedings carefully.

Rita had been seen as Benson's anointed successor for several years, when the first signs of a rift between them appeared publicly in 2012. Benson entertained sufficient doubts about her executive style and abilities to suspend her as his vice president for a few months, and she evidently never enjoyed his confidence again, especially as her relations with Gayle were famously icy.

Rita LeBlanc evidently knew what was coming before Benson announced that the mantle would pass to Gayle after his death. By 2014, Rita was seeking evidence that Tom Benson had lost his marbles, and, to that end, secretly recorded a 90-minute meeting she had with him. The tape, according to her, proved that Benson, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, was incapable of rational thought and easy prey for a wicked stepmother.

Benson's attorneys maintained that the tape proved something else — Rita's perfidy. She recorded Benson when she knew he was discombobulated by powerful painkillers, they said. She also prolonged the conversation despite his efforts to end it.

As is conventional in such cases, two shrinks, one hired by the plaintiffs, the other by the defense, agreed on a third to break the almost inevitable tie. The LeBlancs' guy was the only one to diagnose mental problems severe enough to render Benson incompetent.

The good fortune that saw Benson rise from car dealer to sports mogul did not always attend his private life. He was twice widowed, and, of the three children he and his first wife adopted, only Renee LeBlanc survived him.

Although Gayle Benson is now boss of the sports franchises, there was so much money lying around his estate that handsome provision was made for the LeBlancs, so we need shed no tears for them. But their estrangement clearly caused him considerable distress in his final years, so maybe the latest revelations are as likely to bring on a pang as a frisson.

Email James Gill at Gill1047@bellsouth.net.