Tom Benson's kin testify in Saints and Pelicans owner's competency case

NEW ORLEANS -- A lawyer for the estranged heirs of Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson described the tone in the courtroom as "somber" and "emotional" as his clients began testifying about their patriarch's mental state.

Taking the witness stand on Tuesday were Benson's daughter, Renee, and his granddaughter, Rita LeBlanc. The pair, along with Renee Benson's son, Ryan LeBlanc, claim in a lawsuit filed in January that Tom Benson was not of sound mind when he ousted them from ownership positions five months ago, instead leaving his third wife in position to take over.

Yet lawyer Randall A. Smith sought to correct reporters when one asked how difficult it was for his clients to testify against their father and grandfather.

"They're not testifying against him," Smith said. "They're testifying for him."

The jilted heirs have claimed that Tom Benson's wife, Gayle, a former interior decorator whom he married in 2004, has conspired with certain Saints and Pelicans executives to manipulate the 87-year-old owner into changing his succession plan. Court documents describe Gayle Benson as being "nearly 20 years younger" than her husband.

"They've been involved in these businesses since they were teenagers," Smith said of Benson's daughter and her two children in brief comments outside of court.

The trial is closed to the public and participants are under a gag order, so as attorneys have left the courtroom during breaks, they have declined to comment on the substance of anything said during the trial.

Renee Benson answered questions from both sides' lawyers for about five hours. Rita LeBlanc took questions from her attorney for a couple hours and is expected to undergo cross-examination Wednesday.

In court filings, Benson has said he decided after evaluating his relatives' performances for years that they were not fit to assume control of his business empire. That empire includes New Orleans' NFL and NBA teams, as well as auto dealerships, a television station, a bank, and real estate holdings that include a hunting ranch outside San Antonio and an office high-rise in downtown New Orleans.

It remains unclear if Tom Benson will testify, although he indicated outside the courtroom that he would be prepared to do so if called.

Louisiana law states that a person, like Tom Benson, whose mental competency is being challenged, may testify on his own behalf. But it is not clear whether he can be compelled to do so, which essentially leaves that decision in the hands of the judge.

Tom Benson was asked outside court if it was difficult for him to hear his relatives' testimony. His attorney, Phil Wittmann, didn't give his client a chance to answer, instead telling reporters they should know he cannot answer such a question under the terms of the gag order.

When Rita LeBlanc is finished on the witness stand, she is expected to be followed by her brother and then a psychiatrist who'd been chosen by the plaintiffs to participate in a three-physician panel which provided the court with a mental health evaluation of Tom Benson.

Another psychiatrist involved in the case was selected by Tom Benson's attorneys. Judge Kern Reese, who is presiding over the civil trial in New Orleans, ordered that the psychiatrists picked by each side agree upon a third to help with the psychiatric report.

Like many filings in the case, the report has been sealed, so it is unclear whether it came to definitive conclusions, or how much weight those conclusions will have in trial.

If Reese finds after trial that Benson lacks the mental fitness to manage his own affairs, he will have to appoint someone to oversee his business and personal affairs. Smith has argued a logical candidate would be Tom Benson's only living child.

However, top Saints and Pelicans executives, including Dennis Lauscha, the president for both clubs, and Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, who also serves as a Pelicans vice president, have publicly supported Tom Benson's decision to make Gayle Benson his primary successor.

Gayle Benson has yet to be seen in court during trial, which is expected to last until Friday, and it remains unclear whether she will be called as a witness.