New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson risks losing control of his sports empire in a $1.7 billion family feud after pushing aside his daughter and grandchildren in favor of his third wife.
As family squabbles go, the Benson clan’s is as eye-catching as his sideline victory dances after a win by his National Football League franchise.
The 87-year-old self-made tycoon, who also owns pro basketball’s Pelicans, fired his daughter Renee and two grandchildren two days after Christmas, repossessed their cars and took hundreds of millions of dollars in assets from their trusts. The slighted heirs responded with lawsuits claiming the family patriarch is being manipulated by his wife and may be mentally incompetent. As evidence, they pointed to Benson’s alleged preferred diet of candy, ice cream, soda and red wine.
“Things are just not right,” the family said in a court filing. They asked the courts to step in to protect Benson and “his hard-earned estate.” Benson’s net worth is estimated at $1.7 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
The battle is now playing out on two fronts, in courthouses in New Orleans and San Antonio, as both sides turn to their lawyers to win control.
Renee Benson and her children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, who are known as the “Three Rs,” played integral roles in running Benson’s sports franchises, banks and automobile dealerships.
When the New Orleans Superdome reopened in September 2006 after Hurricane Katrina, Rita stood beside then NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue to address reporters on behalf of the Saints. She has attended NFL owners’ meetings with her grandfather or represented the team for him since 1997, and -- until fired days before her 38th birthday -– she served as vice-chairman of both the Saints’ and Pelicans’ organizations.
Renee and Ryan ran the family’s Texas-based Lone Star Capital Bank NA and car dealerships from San Antonio.
Tom Benson agrees he spent years coaching his daughter and her children in all aspects of the family businesses, “to groom them into the type of business persons that he could have confidence in” to take over after his death, Phil Wittmann, one of Benson’s attorneys, said in a court filing. They “never rose to the task.”
After receiving a terse kiss-off note via e-mail in December and failing to reach Benson, the heirs raced to courthouses in two cities to try to contain the damage.
In San Antonio they obtained a court order temporarily barring him from locking them out of their offices and accounts and from gutting their trusts.
“The value of the trust assets is in jeopardy,” Bennett Stahl, the daughter’s lawyer, told Texas probate Judge Thomas Rickhoff Wednesday in a request to extend the freeze.
The heirs want Benson removed as the manager of the trusts and replaced with a receiver, “the sooner the better,” Stahl said.
In New Orleans, where Benson lives, the family asked a state judge to order a mental evaluation for him and also to appoint a conservator to manage his personal and business affairs.
At the San Antonio hearing, Wittmann questioned the Texas judge’s authority to hear the dispute since the family’s claim that the patriarch is mentally incompetent will be decided in Louisiana.
Rickhoff said he didn’t want to duplicate the proceedings and would let the Louisiana judge take evidence concerning Benson’s mental fitness.
The Benson clan was until recently “one unified loving family,” according to the heirs.
Four generations of the Benson family traditionally gathered in Texas each year for Thanksgiving. When Saints’ games clashed with Christmas, the family would postpone its holiday celebration until after game day.
“When asked, Tom Benson would openly say that his success is not to be judged by his financial wealth, but rather, the richness of having such a close family,” the heirs said in court filings.
That was before he fired them and changed his will to give control of his holdings to his wife after his death.
The cut-off heirs “are well aware of the string of events that led Mr. Benson to make changes in his estate and succession plans,” his lawyers said in a court filing, without elaborating.
The change “was not abrupt,” Paul Cordes, a lawyer who helped Benson reconfigure the trust plans, said in a Feb. 2 interview. “He gave his family members all the opportunities, resources, support, everything to rise to the occasion to prove to him they were the right people to take things going forward.”
“He’s decided the future would be better with his wife, Gayle, having control of the teams,” Cordes said.
Benson didn’t completely disinherit the family, the lawyer said. He offered a secured $449 million promissory note to plug a hole created when majority stakes in the two clubs were yanked from the trusts.
Cordes said the family’s trustee is evaluating whether the proposed swap exchanges assets of equivalent value, as is required by law. The heirs said Benson sharply devalued his pro- sports franchises in the asset swap. Cordes said the team valuations are based on the same data the trustee “has relied on over the years.”
“They will continue to enjoy the hundreds of millions of dollars they have been given; they simply will not have the specific assets they would like to have,” Wittmann, the Benson lawyer defending him in court, said in a filing. He declined requests to comment on the case.
The family blames the falling out on Benson’s wife, a 67- year-old former interior designer, according to court filings. The twice-widowed Benson married her in 2004, less than a year after the death of his second wife.
Gayle has “systematically isolated” the billionaire to the point she screens his “phone calls, e-mails and regular mail” and decides who can and can’t see him, according to the family’s court filings. She also holds the receiver for him during phone calls to listen in and has been overheard coaching him on what to say, the family has said.
Gayle Benson, in a statement provided by Saints spokesman Greg Bensel, described her husband as an amazing man.
“The most important thing to me is to continue to secure his legacy in the city he loves, New Orleans, forever and we will do that,” she said.
Gayle Benson isn’t directly involved in the cases, Cordes said. “She is not a party to any of this and has no need for representation because of it,” he said.
The heirs claim Benson suffers from impaired memory, having recently told someone Ronald Reagan was the U.S. president and then guessing Harry Truman when told Reagan wasn’t correct.
Benson’s e-mail severing the ties with his daughter and her children pinpointed their attitude toward his wife as a big part of the problem.
“Suddenly after I remarried you all became offensive,” Benson said in his post-Christmas e-mail, which is part of the court file, adding the former heirs didn’t act appropriately and argued among themselves. “Because of the facts set out above and the heartbreak you have caused me, I want no further contact with any of you.”
Benson remains active in running his businesses and has suffered no ailment that could justify the “civil death remedy” of having a court-appointed conservator make all his decisions, Wittmann said in a filing. The fact the family is asking for one “is a sad and telling indication that Mr. Benson’s concerns” about his family “were well-placed.”
In a statement provided by the Saints, Benson said his family would continue to “be very well taken care of after I die.”
His decision was based on what was right for the teams, he said.
“I agree that this is somewhat of a change in what has been formally declared but this is best for our teams and our community,” Benson said. “Continuity is very important and this plan ensures that.”
The Saints and Pelicans’ current managers will continue to run the clubs’ day-to-day operations as they’ve done for the past decade or so, consulting daily with him now and with his wife after he dies, Benson said.
“This is a good structure,” he said. “The only difference is that my wife Gayle will be in control of the Saints and Pelicans when I die, which I can assure you will not be anytime soon.”
The Benson feud threatens to overshadow the image many Saints fans have of the flamboyant team owner, who was well known for his enthusiastic sideline dance with a fleur-de-lis umbrella after every Saints’ victory, called the Benson Boogie.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, at a pre-Super Bowl press conference last week, said he had spoken recently with Benson and found him in good mental health and capable of making his own choices.
“He was going to his office as usual,” Goodell told reporters. “He’s got complete control over what he’s doing to make sure that organization goes in the right direction.”