NEW ORLEANS (AP) — New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson sued in federal court Wednesday in an effort to regain assets in his pro teams from trusts he had set up for recently estranged heirs.
The lawsuit contends that trustee Robert Rosenthal has unlawfully rejected Benson's plan to swap $556 million in promissory notes into the trusts for his daughter Renee, and her children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, in exchange for shares in the Saints and Pelicans.
Tom Benson announced in January that he was removing his daughter and her children from ownership and executive positions they held with the teams and, upon his death, would leave control of his business empire to his third wife, Gayle, whom he married in 2004.
The lawsuit on Wednesday marks the latest maneuver in a legal struggle that erupted publicly two months ago, but internal team communications obtained by The Associated Press this week show the extent to which distrust was growing between Gayle Benson and the family of Benson's daughter from his first marriage last summer, when the Saints were in training camp in West Virginia.
In a terse email to Saints and Pelicans president Dennis Lauscha on Aug. 7, Renee Benson expressed concern that she and her children weren't told about a surgical procedure performed on the family's 87-year-old patriarch until after the fact. And when they did find out, it was not from Tom Benson himself, or from an email update that Gayle Benson had sent to about two dozen people.
It was from Lauscha, who had forwarded Gayle Benson's update to them.
"This is not how our family does things!" Renee Benson wrote to Lauscha. "Please. Keep us better informed!"
Recently, Tom Benson has been undergoing a court-ordered psychiatric examination which a state judge in New Orleans wants completed by Friday. The results, which the judge has ordered be kept private, could help decide who controls New Orleans' major pro sports franchises.
The psychiatric evaluation resulted from a lawsuit by Tom Benson's estranged heirs, who want the team owner declared mentally unfit to oversee his own affairs. The lawsuit painted Gayle Benson as a manipulative woman who has conspired with certain Saints and Pelicans executives to isolate an enfeebled Tom Benson from family, and to seize control of his businesses.
Paul Cordes, an attorney for Tom and Gayle Benson, said Wednesday that the team owner's daughter and grandchildren "had full access" to him during times they sent emails about being kept out of the loop, and that Lauscha was ensuring they were informed as he always did.
Representatives for Renee Benson, and Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, declined comment.
The documents obtained by AP include a confidential letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell which outlined Tom Benson's intention, as recently as last June, to name his now-estranged daughter and her children as "voting co-trustees" of Saints assets placed in trust for them, and to give Rita LeBlanc authority to represent the club at NFL owners meetings.
That letter was crafted about a half year before Tom Benson's attorneys asserted that Benson decided to change his succession plan "after years of concern and misgivings" about the ability of his daughter and her children to manage his businesses.
Cordes described the letter to the commissioner as standard housekeeping that the NFL requires for succession plans, and said it was submitted before Tom Benson decided he needed to change course.
The emails obtained by AP include updates that Gayle Benson sent to team personnel, associates and acquaintances on Aug. 7 and Sept. 4 about her husband following surgical procedures on his knee. Renee Benson and her two children were initially excluded from receiving either of those emails until Lauscha forwarded them.
In her response to the Aug. 7 email, Rita LeBlanc told the Saints team president that Gayle Benson was defying Tom Benson's instructions to keep family members informed about his health.
Tom Benson "specifically told our attorneys he wants us informed of his health care," LeBlanc wrote. "There is no reason to inform employees and not family members."
Documents show that by Nov. 21, Rita LeBlanc was so exasperated by the lack of information she was receiving about her grandfather's health that she asked attorney Carol Baskin to draft a letter to Tom Benson's physicians, requesting that doctors at least communicate directly with her mother.
"We have no accurate accounting of how many procedures he has had to date, nor specifically how invasive or how many times he has been put under anesthesia," LeBlanc wrote to Baskin. "The current obstructionist behavior on his wife's part is not tolerable."
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Posted on Wed, March 11, 2015
by BRETT MARTEL, AP Sports Writer