Relatives of New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson have filed a lawsuit opposing their ouster from ownership positions on the teams.
Benson’s daughter, Renee, and her two children allege in Thursday’s lawsuit that Tom Benson’s physical and mental health are failing — asserting that he recently answered "Ronald Reagan" when asked to identify the current U.S. president — and he’s being manipulated by his wife of 10 years.
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The lawsuit was filed in civil district court in Orleans Parish. It comes less than 24 hours after the 87-year-old owner announced he has rewritten his will to give wife Gayle Benson control of the Saints and Pelicans upon his death.
Tom Benson also has named his wife as a current owner of the clubs while removing from ownership his daughter and her children, Rita Benson LeBlanc and Ryan LeBlanc.
In a statement posted on the Saints’ website Thursday night, Benson said he is "extremely disappointed by the lawsuit" and adds that the "allegations regarding my mental health are completely meritless and their allegations against my wife equally unfounded."
He adds that he will "vigorously defend" his decisions and businesses.
"Make no mistake, I will be back in the office tomorrow morning working hard, as I do every day, to ensure that the Saints and Pelicans are positioned for long-term success," Benson said. "This state, city and our great fans deserve that. I have instructed my staff to have no comment on this lawsuit moving forward."
The lawsuit asks a judge to block Tom Benson’s new succession plan, order Benson to be evaluated by an independent, board-certified psychiatrist, and restore the plaintiffs to their positions in Benson family businesses, which include auto dealerships and real estate holdings.
"Sadly, the Benson family was forced to take this action in the best interests of Tom Benson and his legacy, the customers of Benson family automobile dealerships, the employees of all of the family enterprises and the multitude of Pelicans and Saints fans," said the plaintiffs’ attorney, Randall Smith.
In another written statement released Thursday morning, Tom Benson stated that his decision to install Gayle as an owner and oust previously designated heirs to the teams will ensure the long-term stability of the franchises in New Orleans. Benson said the move would promote continuity among top management of the organizations, led by Denis Lauscha, the president of both clubs, and Mickey Loomis, the executive vice president of the teams and general manager of the Saints.
"This is based solely on doing what is right," Benson said in his statement, adding that his wife’s "love for New Orleans and giving back to the community she loves is unmatched."
The lawsuit, however, claims that Gayle Benson has conspired with Lauscha, Loomis and a select few others to systematically isolate Tom Benson and "to prevent him from his usual interaction with family, friends and advisors."
The lawsuit describes the photos of family members, once prominently displayed in Tom Benson’s office, being removed. It alleges that Gayle Benson monitors all of her husband’s emails and phone calls and controls access to him.
It further alleges that Gayle Benson has prevented her husband from attending traditional family gatherings at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
It also describes a more recent "bizarre" pattern of behavior and decision-making by Tom Benson — particularly in regard to control of his assets — that are allegedly inconsistent with intentions he had clearly laid out during much of the past decade.
Such instances included a Dec. 27 email in which Benson stated he "never wants to see Renee, Rita or Ryan again" and that he intended to ban them from the Saints and Pelicans games, as well as facilities of both teams and other New Orleans properties.
Benson has been "heavily medicated" and has "acknowledged to others that he has been having difficulty thinking, suffering from apparent memory losses," the lawsuit said, adding that his speech slurs, he’s appeared disoriented in public and acknowledged he sometimes doesn’t know his age, whereabouts or day of the week.
The lawsuit alleges Tom Benson’s diet rarely consists of nutritious meals but rather "candy, ice cream, sodas and red wine."
The plaintiffs also stress that Tom Benson’s memory appears "significantly impaired," alleging that Benson recently answered "Ronald Reagan," and later, "Harry Truman, "when asked who was president.
Tom Benson has not cited specific reasons why he has lost confidence in his daughter’s and grandchildren’s ability to run the franchises. Benson also insinuated that they still stood to profit significantly from his more than $1 billion fortune.
"My family, including Renee, Rita and Ryan — just as they have been — will be very well taken care of after I die," Benson’s statement said.
Benson has owned the Saints since 1985 and the Pelicans since 2012. In each case, Benson was credited with securing their futures in New Orleans when they were widely seen as vulnerable to a move out of state by prospective buyers.
"Our football and basketball operations could not ask for a better owner in Mr. Benson," said Loomis, adding that "nothing will change" when Gayle Benson takes over. "That stability creates an environment so that players and coaches want to come here."
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league is "aware of the intent of the transaction and it is under review for the appropriate league approvals."
Under NFL rules, the league’s finance committee reviews any changes in ownership structure, makes a report to all clubs, and the clubs vote. Any transfer of ownership — even 1 percent — requires the approval of at least 24 of 32 teams.
NBA spokesman Tim Frank said Tom Benson has "notified the league office of his intent to transfer ownership of the team to his wife Gayle at the time of his passing. The Pelicans are anchored in the New Orleans community and with Mr. Benson’s ownership have been on a path to long-term success."
Greg Bensel, a spokesman for both franchises, declined comment on the lawsuit.