Saints/Pelicans owner Tom Benson wants 'zero' left in trust to daughter, grandchildren

ByMike Triplett ESPN logo
Saturday, May 21, 2016

NEW ORLEANS -- Tom Benson's vitriol toward his daughter and grandchildren was evident during a deposition given by the New Orleans Saints andPelicansowner in March.

Benson said he would like to leave them "zero" in a family trust that had been set up for them. And when asked why, he replied, "Well, they tried to kill me for one thing."

When asked, "How so?" Benson replied, "By picking on my wife and when I wasn't feel[ing] very good, they were very hostile."

He continued: "They attacked me, you got to know. That's why I don't want to leave them anything. OK? I found out they didn't love me very much, trying to stab me in the back, wanted to take over everything, brought me to court saying I was crazy. You don't need any more than that."

Benson, 88, has been embroiled in a bitter legal battle with his daughter, Renee Benson, and his grandchildren, Rita LeBlanc and Ryan LeBlanc, since he announced plans in January 2015 to oust them as successors to his business empire and replace them with his third wife, Gayle, whom he married in 2004.

"What was said, was said," said Benson's attorney, Phil Wittman, who declined to comment on any of the specifics since Benson's deposition was supposed to be confidential per the court's ruling. The excerpts were made public because they were attached to a filing by the trustees.

The spurned heirs tried to have Benson declared mentally incompetent, claiming he was in mental and physical decline and being unduly influenced by Gayle and others in the organization. But their lawsuit was rejected by a New Orleans civil court and a state appeals court, and the Louisiana Supreme Court denied their petition to hear a further appeal.

The two sides are also battling in federal court over the family trust. Benson is trying to remove nonvoting shares of the Saints and Pelicans, which he is allowed to do if he replaces them with equally valuable assets.

So far, he has offered mostly promissory notes, which was challenged as an insufficient exchange by the trustees guarding the funds.

Portions of Benson's deposition were made public Thursday as part of the latest court filing in that case.

Benson testified that an altercation between Renee and Gayle in his suite before a Saints game in December 2014 was the "final blow" in his decision to cut out his former heirs.

Benson said he witnessed Renee physically shaking Gayle, though and other media outlets previously reported that Rita was the one who shook Gayle, according to sources.

Later in his deposition, when Benson was asked if Gayle likes Renee, he replied, "She never told me." But he added, "Certainly after that incident she didn't like her. ... I didn't either."

Benson also testified that at least some of the spurned heirs (he believed it was Renee and Rita) came to his house and verbally attacked Gayle around the same time in December 2014.

Before the altercation in his suite, according to Benson's testimony, his daughter and grandchildren "showed a lot of indications ... they wanted to take over everything." However, when asked what indications they had shown, Benson said, "I don't remember."

Benson reiterated his intention to have Gayle take over sole control of the Saints and Pelicans after he dies.

When asked if Gayle is involved in running any of his businesses, Benson said, "She's involved with me, but she don't run any businesses. ... I keep her posted on what's going on. I want her to learn the thing. My plan is that she would take over when I die."

The attorney for Benson's spurned heirs described his testimony as "sad" and pointed out that it included several instances of memory lapses.

"It just supports what we've been saying, that this is a man that needs help, that needs to be protected, that's got issues," attorney Randy Smith said. "The idea that he thinks my clients tried to kill him, that's sad. I mean, they love him. They've been with him their whole lives. Not just some extended family, they worked hand in glove in all his businesses, and they were just kicked out.

"And to hear that he describes it at least in part to thinking that Renee attacked Gayle, Renee wasn't even at the game that he's talking about. The words that were reported were between Rita and Gayle, not his daughter Renee, who wasn't even there.

"It's just a lot of sadness on my clients' part that he would be saying those things and thinking those things."

Smith also pointed to when Benson referred to his longtime former personal assistant Rodney Henry as "just a porter." Henry recently sued Benson for years of unpaid overtime and claimed that Gayle racially discriminated against him and harassed him. That case was recently ordered to arbitration under NFL commissioner Roger Goodell since it involved a league employment contract.

"Everyone's been shut out of his life except for this little inner circle," Smith said. "Of course he's been kept away from my clients and really from the public from any meaningful interviews or opportunities to see his state of mind. He can't hide it forever, though."