Judge rules Saints, Pelicans owner Benson competent
NEW ORLEANS -- A judge has ruled that New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson remains competent to run his business empire.
The ruling legally upholds Benson's decision nearly six months ago to place his third wife, Gayle, first in line to inherit control of his NFL and NBA teams instead of recently disowned heirs who had been groomed to take over.
Benson's daughter, Renee Benson, and her children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, sued in January, asking Reese to rule that their patriarch was mentally unsound and being unduly manipulated by his wife when he changed his succession plan.
Benson has stated through his lawyers that his estranged heirs have failed to prove themselves worthy of taking over his businesses.
Reese's ruling could be appealed.
The judge ordered a mental evaluation by three psychiatrists - one selected by each side and a third physician who was agreed upon by the first two, and who was expected to be more neutral.
During an eight-day trial that was closed to the public earlier this month, Tom Benson's lawyers called their psychiatrist and the more neutral physician as witnesses. They also called Dennis Lauscha, who is president of both pro teams; an estate lawyer; and Gayle Benson.
Plaintiffs' attorney Randall A. Smith called his three clients as witnesses, as well as one of Benson's former nurses; a former Benson business associate from San Antonio; a former housekeeper; and the psychiatrist his clients had selected.
Renee Benson is Tom Benson's only living child and for decades has worked in his businesses in Louisiana and Texas.
Rita LeBlanc began working for the Saints full time in 2001 and after Hurricane Katrina became one of the premier public faces of the franchise during ceremonies on game days or at events involving civic or business leaders. She performed similar tasks for the Pelicans after her grandfather bought the NBA team in 2012.
Ryan LeBlanc managed some of his grandfather's businesses, primarily in Texas.
Gayle Benson is a former interior decorator who married Tom Benson in 2004. Lauscha has publicly endorsed Gayle Benson's ascension in ownership as a step toward preserving continuity with the franchises. General manager Mickey Loomis, who also serves as a Pelicans vice president, has supported the change as well.
The estranged heirs still stand to inherit hundreds of millions of dollars. But Tom Benson has sought to swap out assets in irrevocable trusts he'd set up for his daughter and her children to remove their ownership stakes in his teams and other businesses.
Benson's attempt to change the trusts is tied up in a separate lawsuit in federal court in New Orleans.
A third lawsuit involving an older trust that 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.