Tom Benson's family is fighting back in court, claiming he has diminished mental capacity after he announced plans to remove them from control of his businesses, including the NFL's New Orleans Saints and NBA's Pelicans.
Benson, 87, announced Wednesday that he plans to hand over control of the franchises to his wife, Gayle, in the event of his death. But Benson's adopted daughter, Renee Benson, and grandchildren Rita Benson LeBlanc and Ryan LeBlanc filed a lawsuit Thursday claiming he should not be allowed to do so because his "health and mental capacity have significantly declined" and he has "fallen under the undue influence" of Gayle, whom Benson married in 2004.
Benson responded to the lawsuit in a statement Thursday night.
"I am extremely disappointed by the lawsuit filed against me today by my daughter and two grandchildren," he said. "Their allegations regarding my mental health are completely meritless and their allegations against my wife equally unfounded. I will vigorously defend my decisions and the businesses I have built. The false accusations in this suit further support the actions I have taken in changing the succession and transfer of ownership. There is a small sign that sits on my desk and simply states 'Tough times never last; but tough people do.' Make no mistake, I will be back in the office tomorrow morning working hard, as I do every day, to ensure that the Saints and Pelicans are positioned for long-term success. This State, City and our great fans deserve that. I have instructed my staff to have no comment on this lawsuit moving forward."
A source close to Benson described him as "healthy" on Wednesday night. And chief executives of both the Saints and Pelicans, Mickey Loomis and Dennis Lauscha, both strongly endorsed the ownership transfer in a statement released by the team on Thursday, as did New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond.
Multiple sources also have cited the longstanding friction between Gayle and the family among the reasons for Benson's decision to change the ownership succession plan.
The 27-page lawsuit lays out numerous examples of alleged "bizarre and uncharacteristic behavior" by Tom Benson -- including an email that apparently was sent from Benson to his family members on Dec. 27, announcing that he never wanted to see Renee, Rita or Ryan again and his intention to ban them from Saints and Pelicans facilities and games, as well as other New Orleans businesses. Soon after that, Benson terminated granddaughter Rita Benson LeBlanc's position as owner/vice chairman of the board. She once was being groomed as his heir apparent.
The lawsuit questioned the authenticity of the email and made several claims that Gayle has taken multiple steps to isolate Benson from his family while increasingly influencing his actions.
The lawsuit also alleged several examples of Benson's diminished health and mental capacity, claiming that he has been heavily medicated in the past several months, while undergoing at least two knee surgeries. The suit also claimed that Benson has suffered from apparent memory lapses -- including an unspecified occasion when he was asked to name the current president and guessed Ronald Reagan and Harry Truman.
The suit also claims that Benson has forgotten his wife's name and once failed to recognize daughter Renee. And it claims that under Gayle's supervision, Benson's diet has "drastically deteriorated," with candy, ice cream, sodas and red wine replacing full, nutritious meals.
Benson was hospitalized twice and treated for dehydration during the team's training camp in West Virginia last summer before he returned home because he was having difficulty with the altitude. He subsequently had another knee surgery and has often required the use of a wheelchair or walker since then. However, Benson has continued to make occasional public appearances -- including a visit with NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune on Wednesday, when he announced his plans to change his succession plan, and he made an appearance at the Pelicans game Wednesday night.
The lawsuit, however, claims "although he may appear lucid for brief periods of time, such apparent lucidity quickly turns into confusion."
The lawsuit lists a number of alleged "bizarre" actions regarding business dealings, mostly intended to isolate the family, and claims that Gayle Benson urged her husband into an attempt to purchase the Fairgrounds Race Course and Slots, even though the NFL forbids owners from having interests in gambling facilities.
The lawsuit claims that the "petitioners have done nothing to provoke any of the above, unjustified actions and have sought and still seek to reconcile with" Benson.
The attached email allegedly sent by Benson on Dec. 27 read:
"Suddenly after I remarried you all became offensive and did not act in an appropriate manner and even had arguments among yourselves which created a very unpleasant family situation which I will not stand for. It made me very unhappy and uncomfortable. This situation cannot continue at my age. Because of the facts set out above and the heart break you have caused me I want no further contact with any of you ..."
The lawsuit asked for a full interdiction, with Renee LeBlanc being appointed as the curatrix of the person and property of Tom Benson, with Rita Benson LeBlanc as undercurator. It also asked for Benson to be examined by a certified psychiatrist.
Furthermore, the lawsuit claims that Gayle Benson, 67, was in significant debt and had limited credit when she met Benson. And the suit claims she is unfit for ownership of the Benson businesses because she has never owned, operated or managed a substantial business enterprise and had stated publicly before marrying Benson that she had no interest in football, basketball or sports in general.
Multiple sources throughout the Saints and Pelicans organizations have widely praised Gayle both on and off the record, including quarterback Drew Brees, who was quoted by various media outlets while at the Pro Bowl on Thursday as saying, "I absolutely love Gayle" and that she is one of the sweetest people he's ever met.
Gayle has been often 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's succession plan for the Saints would need to be approved by three-fourths of NFL owners. League spokesman Brian McCarthy said: "We are aware of the intent of the transaction and it is under review for the appropriate league approvals."
Benson also notified the NBA of the change, and it would have to be approved by the other owners, a league source said.
Information from ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne was used in this report.