Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson walked slowly toward a court room where a struggle for control of his pro sports teams is playing out.
Using a cane with his left hand while a young lawyer held the 87-year-old’s right arm for support, Benson paused near several media members and quipped, ”Y’all can report that I’m still walking — damn good.”
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”All I want is a good football team and a good basketball team,” he added, before disappearing into the court room from which the public — including the media — has been barred.
Monday marked the opening of a civil trial in which Benson’s disowned daughter, Renee, and her two children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, are contesting their ouster from ownership positions with New Orleans’ NFL and NBA teams.
The estranged heirs contend Tom Benson was not of sound mind when he changed his succession plan to bequeath control of the Saints, Pelicans and other businesses to his third wife, Gayle, whom he married in 2004.
Benson announced the change in January, and his jilted heirs filed suit a day later, claiming that their patriarch is being manipulated by his wife in concert with top Saints executives, who are taking advantage of the Louisiana billionaire’s frail mental and physical state.
The opening of trial also marked the first time Benson had been in the same room with his only living child and her two children since their stunning split.
Rita LeBlanc, who had been one of the primary public faces of the Saints since their return from Hurricane Katrina, and who often represented the Pelicans in a similar capacity after her grandfather bought the NBA club in 2012, did not comment. Neither did her mother or brother.
”We’re here because we want the best for Tom Benson and his family and his employees and the Saints, the Pelicans, the city, the state – all of the stakeholders in this,” Smith said. ”This isn’t easy for anybody, but we believe we’re doing the right thing.”
Lawyers said the trial is expected to last until Thursday or Friday, with the plaintiffs calling seven witnesses and Tom Benson’s attorneys calling about five more.
For his part, Tom Benson appeared to be in good spirits, except momentarily when asked in front of television cameras if he was competent to run his franchises.
Frowning dismissively, he said, ”I’ve been running them for 50 years, eh?”
Benson bought the Saints 30 years ago, in 1985, but began building a business empire that includes auto dealerships, a bank, television station and real estate holdings well before that.
After listening to more than five hours of testimony, Benson was asked how the trial was going as he made his way toward an elevator and responded, ”Great.”
Before being helped into a black Mercedes-Benz, Benson was reminded by attorney Phil Wittman that there is a gag order in place and said, ”I can’t talk about nothing. I just feel good.”
The first two witnesses to appear in court were Tom Roddy, a former long-time Tom Benson business associate, and Takiyah Daniels, a nurse who formerly cared for Benson. A former house keeper also offered video testimony. All were called by the plaintiffs.
Roddy, who formerly was a board member with the Saints and numerous other Benson businesses, declined to discuss what was said at trial, but he paused a moment when asked if it was difficult for him on a personal, emotional level to testify.
He started to make an analogy to his marriage.
”I’ve been married to my wife for 52 years. If she,” he began, but then stopped abruptly, lowered his gaze, shook his head and walked away, declining further comment.
Daniels said it has been ”mentally draining for myself and my family to be involved in this,” then said she preferred not to comment further because of court orders.
Several media outlets had intervened in the lawsuit in an attempt to open at least parts of trial to the public, but presiding judge Kern Reese denied their motion, saying Tom Benson’s medical privacy rights outweighed the public’s right to know — particularly because Benson was a defendant who was having his mental health called into question.
His ruling was appealed, but upheld unanimously on Monday, and without comment, by a three-judge panel of the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal.