Saints, Pelicans owner asks judge to dismiss heirs' lawsuit

AP News
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Posted: Jan 27, 2015 9:55 PM
Saints, Pelicans owner asks judge to dismiss heirs' lawsuit

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson has asked a judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed by his recently estranged heirs who are seeking control of his NFL and NBA teams.

Benson's lawyers filed an answer to the lawsuit in district court in New Orleans on Tuesday. Benson said he made a "deliberate, reasoned and difficult decision" to eventually leave control of the teams with Gayle Benson, his wife of 10 years.

Benson's daughter, Renee Benson, and her children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, have recently been removed from the 87-year-old owner's succession plan for his clubs.

They sued last week, claiming Benson's physical and mental health are failing, allowing him to be manipulated by his wife and her allies within the teams' top management.

As part of their lawsuit, they asked for access to Benson's medical records and that the judge appoint an independent psychiatrist to evaluate the owner's mental health. The lawsuit also urged the judge to appoint Renee Benson to oversee all of her father's business interests, a process known legally as interdiction.

"Petitioners are not, as they claim in their petition, seeking to protect Mr. Benson and his business interests," said the court filing written by Benson's attorney, Phil Wittmann. "Rather they are cynically employing the interdiction procedure to wrest control of those business interests from Mr. Benson."

Speaking to The Associated Press by phone, Wittmann added that interdiction is a "very extreme remedy for anyone to seek" because, for practical purposes, it amounts to "a sentence of civil death" which prevents people from handling their own affairs.

Wittmann said Renee Benson and her children "haven't alleged any specific infirmities which prevent (Tom Benson) from making reasoned business decisions on a consistent basis."

Randall Smith, the attorney for Renee Benson and her children, did not immediately respond to an email asking for his comments on Tom Benson's filing.

The first hearing in the matter is set for Feb. 10.

Renee Benson is Tom Benson's only living child and for decades has worked in his businesses, which include auto dealerships in both New Orleans and San Antonio, commercial real estate holdings and a television station.

Rita LeBlanc has worked for the Saints since 2001 and since Hurricane Katrina had been one of the premier public faces of the Saints during ceremonies on game days or at events involving civic or business leaders. She has performed similar tasks for the Pelicans since her grandfather bought the NBA team in 2012.

Ryan LeBlanc has managed some of his grandfather's businesses, primarily in Texas.

In the past month, they have all been fired from executive positions with the Saints and Pelicans, but have won a temporary restraining order from a Texas judge allowing them access to some business properties in that state.

"For years, Mr. Benson attempted to involve each of the petitioners in various aspects of his business interests and to groom them into the type of business persons that he could have confidence in to own and/or run those business interests when he died," Tom Benson's motion said. "Unfortunately, the petitioners never rose to the task."

Benson has said his daughter and her children will continue to be well taken care of, but will no longer have any role with the professional sports franchises.

"This was not a decision made out of spite," Benson's motion for dismissal said, stressing that his heirs "will continue to enjoy the hundreds of millions of dollars they have been given; they simply will not have the assets they would like to have."

The initial lawsuit, in outlining allegations about Tom Benson's failing mental health, claimed that he recently answered "Ronald Reagan," and then, "Harry Truman," when asked who was president.

Wittmann said Benson at the time was responding to a concussion test after he'd fallen and hit his head during ownership meetings in Atlanta.

"He was being asked questions they ask football players suspected of having concussions," Wittmann said, dismissing the notion that the answers portrayed Benson's general mental health.

The lawsuit also alleges that Tom Benson has sought to re-acquire full ownership of the clubs by providing $427 million in unsecured promissory notes to his heirs' trusts in exchange for their shares in the teams.

That amount appears to be far less than the actual worth of shares placed in trust for Renee Benson and her children, the lawsuit stated. So far, the trustee has rejected such a swap. The business magazine Forbes has valued the Saints at about $1.1 billion and the Pelicans at around $600 million.

Paul Cordes, who is Tom Benson's lawyer in matters relating to the trusts, said the promissory notes are secured by collateral and that the initial figure was only an estimate

Cordes added that he was with Tom Benson when the clubs' owner signed a letter explaining that he did not want to have further contact with his daughter or grandchildren and would ban them from team facilities and other business properties. He said Tom Benson has appeared "liberated" and "unburdened" since severing ties with his heirs.

"This has been building over time. He was increasingly disappointed in the way he was being treated and his wife was being treated by Renee, Rita and Ryan," Cordes said. "He just doesn't want any of them disturbing his happiness with his business and his wife, and that's his choice to make."