Estranged Benson heirs renew calls for psychiatric exam
NEW ORLEANS (AP) The estranged heirs of New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson say his attorneys are opposing an independent psychiatric evaluation for the businessman because they fear the results.
The claim was made in documents filed Friday by attorneys for Benson's daughter, Renee, and her children Rita and Ryan LeBlanc. Last month, the three were removed from Tom Benson's succession plan for his NFL and NBA teams.
Benson now says he wants his wife of 10 years, Gayle Benson, to eventually control the clubs. But his daughter and grandchildren contend in the lawsuit in New Orleans that their 87-year-old patriarch was mentally unfit to make recent changes to his will.
''If Tom Benson were honestly consistently capable of making reasoned decisions, he would have no problem readily consenting to an examination by an independent doctor,'' lawyers for the spurned heirs stated.
They added that Tom Benson's refusal to testify in a parallel case in Texas this week demonstrated that Benson's lawyers were trying to shield him ''from the scrutiny of the court.''
The Texas case, filed in Bexar County, involves control of a trust holding Benson assets in the San Antonio area, which include auto dealerships, a bank and ranch property. It does not involve the pro teams in Louisiana, but is part of the dispute that has publicly erupted in the past month between Tom Benson and close family members who for years appeared to be in line to take over his business empire.
During two days of hearings in San Antonio, Bexar County Judge Tom Rickhoff said it would be helpful to hear from Tom Benson himself, but his lawyers decided against producing him as a witness.
Rickoff then appointed former San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger and estate lawyer Art Bayern to temporarily oversee the trust holding the Texas assets. The judge's decision effectively relieves Benson - at least temporarily - of his duties as trustee for the trust he created for his daughter more than three decades ago.
Tom Benson's New Orleans attorneys, led by Phil Wittmann, have opposed a psychiatric examination of their client, saying there is no proof that one is necessary. However, they have said they are open to setting up a private meeting between Tom Benson and the judge in the Louisiana case to resolve any concerns about the team owner's mental health.
Lawyers Randy Smith and Stephen Gele, who represent Renee Benson and her children in the Louisiana case, wrote on Friday that they oppose any such meeting between Benson and Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese.
''An informal meeting with the court cannot substitute for a medical examination by an expert,'' the new court filing stated.
A hearing in the New Orleans case is set for Tuesday. Saints and Pelicans officials could not immediately confirm whether Benson planned to testify.
Renee Benson and her children still stand to inherit hundreds of millions of dollars from Tom Benson, but no part of the Saints and Pelicans.
Tom Benson has done two brief TV interviews since the lawsuit was filed last month - both with FOX affiliates in New Orleans, which he owns.
In one of them, Benson stated: ''People think there's something wrong with me. I've been in the office every day putting in a full day of work and I'm doing fine.''
A couple days before last Sunday's Super Bowl, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said Tom Benson has ''demonstrated to me that he's got complete control over what he's doing.''
One of Tom Benson's granddaughters, Dawn Jones, also has released a statement saying she has a good relationship with her grandfather and Gayle Benson and opposes the lawsuit by her aunt and cousins.
Rita LeBlanc, 38, has worked for the Saints, which her grandfather has owned since 1985, in various roles since 2001.
In recent years she was listed as a part owner in the club's media guide and served as one of the premier faces of the franchise at business and community events. She took on similar roles with the Pelicans, which he bought in 2012.
But a little over a month ago, she was fired from the clubs, locked out of her office at the teams' headquarters and compelled to hand over keys to her team-issued Mercedes-Benz.
Her mother and brother, who also had been listed as part owners, were likewise removed from their executive roles from the clubs and informed they were banned from team property.