Benson franchises will go to wife

METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson revealed Wednesday that he plans to transfer ownership of his franchises to his wife, Gayle, when he dies, instead of his daughter and grandchildren -- a change from his previous succession plan.

Benson revealed his intentions to NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune. On Thursday, he made those plans official.

In his statement Thursday, Benson stressed that nothing will change in the Saints' or Pelicans' management structure with Dennis Lauscha and Mickey Loomis at the top. The "only difference is that my wife, Gayle, will be in control of [the teams] when I die, which I can assure you will not be anytime soon," he said in the statement.

NOLA.com reported that Benson's granddaughter Rita Benson LeBlanc's offices at the teams' headquarters have been vacated and her company car and cellphone have been seized. Daughter Renee Benson and grandson Ryan LeBlanc also have been shut out of Benson's operations.

Benson did not give specific reasons for the change, telling NOLA.com that the decision was "not something that came overnight, but over time," and that it was something "I've decided was in the best interest for the long-term stability and success of our football and basketball teams."

"This is about the legacy of these two teams and everything we have done for the good of the city of New Orleans and our region," Benson added in the written statement. "My primary goal is to give the organization the foundation to live on after me for many, many years.

"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, 87, has been in declining health over the past year, including two knee surgeries that have required the regular use of a wheelchair or walker. But a source said he is healthy. And NOLA.com noted that he remains involved in team activities and attended the Pelicans' home game against the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday night.

Benson LeBlanc was once being groomed as her grandfather's heir apparent. However, her involvement with the sports franchises had diminished in recent years -- including her reportedly being placed on temporary paid administrative leave in 2012. NOLA.com reported she has not participated in team-related business meetings since the end of the Saints' 2014 season.

"Rita will not be involved in the ownership or management of the Saints or Pelicans," Benson said in the statement, although he also told NOLA.com, "My family, just as they have been for their entire lives, will be taken care of."

The previous succession plan called for Renee Benson to receive 60 percent ownership of the two sports franchises, with Rita Benson LeBlanc and Ryan LeBlanc each receiving 20 percent.

Under both plans, however, the power structure of the franchises is expected to remain the same -- with president Dennis Lauscha and executive vice president/general manager Mickey Loomis as the key decision-makers for both franchises on the business and sports side, respectively.

Among other high-ranking executives who will remain influential as senior managers, according to NOLA.com, are: Greg Bensel (senior vice president of communications/broadcasting); Jean-Paul Dardenne (senior vice president of corporate partnerships); Ben Hales (senior vice president of marketing and business development); Ed Lang (senior vice president/chief financial officer); Vicki Neumeyer (senior vice president/general counsel); and Mike Stanfield (senior vice president of sales).

According to NOLA.com, the ownership of the teams will be in a trust for Gayle Benson's lifetime. She will be the trustee with total voting power over the teams and will be the only beneficiary of the trust for her lifetime. A plan is in place beyond that, Tom Benson said, to ensure the teams remain in New Orleans.

"The most important thing to me is to continue to secure [Tom's] legacy in the city he loves, New Orleans, forever. And we will do that," Gayle Benson said in the statement.

Tom and Gayle, 67, were married in 2004, and Gayle has been widely praised as a positive influence in Tom's growing commitment to New Orleans and increased philanthropic endeavors. She helped arrange a lucrative Superdome sponsorship deal with Mercedes-Benz. And she has been credited for helping to re-brand the Pelicans (formerly the Hornets), which Tom Benson purchased in 2012.

Benson purchased the Saints in 1985.