Estate lawyer, psychiatrist testify in Benson trial
NEW ORLEANS (AP) The estate lawyer who helped Tom Benson oust his daughter and her two children from ownership positions with the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans concluded his testimony Thursday in a trial examining Benson's mental soundness.
The closed trial, which could decide who ultimately takes control of New Orleans' NFL and NBA teams long-term, is expected to conclude Friday after what will be the eighth day of testimony. A ruling, however, is not expected from the bench, a civil court spokesman said. Rather, state Civil District Judge Kern Reese is expected to issue a written ruling for which there is no definite timeline.
''I would hope he rules (Friday), but if not, I think he'll rule soon,'' said Tom Benson's lawyer, Phil Wittmann. ''I don't think he'll wait very long.''
Attorney Paul Cordes, who took the stand to begin Thursday's proceedings, was the second-to-last witness the defense expected to call. Cordes has drawn up a succession plan for the 87-year-old Benson that places Benson's third wife, Gayle, first in line to take over the Saints, Pelicans and other business interests.
Benson's daughter, Renee Benson, and her children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, sued the day the new ownership structure was announced in January, claiming that Tom Benson is frail and being manipulated by his wife.
Tom Benson's psychiatrist, Dr. John Thompson, is the final defense witness. His testimony, which began Thursday afternoon, is slated to resume Friday morning. After that, Randall A. Smith, who is the estranged heirs' lawyer, said he expects to call one or two rebuttal witnesses. He did not name them, saying his team still had to discuss whom they intend to call.
It is unclear whether the judge wants to hear from Tom Benson himself.
Reese has closed the trial to the public, sealed the record and issued a gag order in an effort to protect Tom Benson's medical privacy rights, so lawyers for both sides have limited their comments outside court to avoid discussing the evidence presented.
Smith could make a motion to compel Tom Benson to testify and has indicated throughout the case that he would like to see his clients' patriarch on the stand.
''That's up to the judge,'' Smith said, adding that Tom Benson ''certainly has the right to testify. The question is whether he has the right not to.
''Like I said before, we're here to help him. We're here to protect him,'' Smith added.
Tom Benson has said throughout the trial that he feels good, sometimes offering light-hearted one-liners as he comes or goes from court.
''I love you guys, but I'd rather see you at training camp,'' Benson said while entering court Thursday afternoon through a crowd of media.
Thompson, who is with Tulane University, is the last of three psychiatrists to testify. The three also performed mental evaluations of Tom Benson for the court before trial. The other two were Dr. Ted Bloch III, a New Orleans geriatric psychiatrist who was hired by Tom Benson's estranged heirs, and Dr. Kenneth Sakauye of the University of Tennessee. Sakauye was selected by Bloch and Thompson, who'd been commanded by the judge to agree upon a third, more independent physician to contribute to their evaluation.
The extent to which the three psychiatrists varied in their assessments, or how much weight their sealed reports will carry, remains unclear.
Renee Benson and her children still stand to inherit hundreds of millions of dollars from Tom Benson, who had placed ownership shares of his teams in an irrevocable trust benefiting his now-disowned heirs. But Tom Benson has evicted his estranged heirs from offices, fired them from executive positions and has sought to swap out assets in their trusts to remove their ownership stakes in his teams and other business interests.
Benson's attempt to change the trusts is tied up in a separate lawsuit in federal court.
A third lawsuit involving an older trust - which benefits Renee Benson and contains business interests in the San Antonio area - is ongoing in probate court in Texas. There, a judge has appointed temporary receivers to oversee the trust that had previously been controlled by Tom Benson. That case does not involve the Saints and Pelicans.