Judge rules Saints, Pelicans owner Tom Benson competent to run teams

NEW ORLEANS -- Owner Tom Benson was declared mentally competent to run his businesses, including the NFL's New Orleans Saints and NBA's Pelicans, a civil court judge ruled Thursday.

Benson's estranged daughter and grandchildren challenged his competency in court after he announced plans in January to oust them as successors to his vast business empire and replace them with Gayle Benson, his wife of the past 10 years.

Tom Benson still faces multiple legal hurdles when it comes to trying to remove shares of the team from family trusts that have been set up for his daughter Renee Benson and grandchildren Rita and Ryan LeBlanc.

But the mental competency hearing was the most critical because it allows the 87-year-old billionaire to continue calling the shots in his business decisions.

Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese strongly vouched for Benson's mental acumen in his written decision, which could be appealed.

Although Benson did not testify during the eight-day trial, which was closed to the media and the public, he did answer questions from the judge at Benson's office, with attorneys for both sides present. Reese wrote that Benson had "clarity of thought and volition, despite some memory lapses. ... He definitively affirmed the actions he took in December and January, unequivocally. He actually apologized to the court for a somewhat boisterous outburst stating his feelings."

Reese said testimony from two of the three psychiatric experts who examined Benson supported his rulings (both the doctor chosen by Benson and a third, neutral doctor who was agreed upon by both sides). The doctor for the plaintiffs disagreed.

The judge also cited the testimony of a former private nurse for Benson, Takiyah Daniels, whom he called "perhaps the most credible fact witness." Reese said the nurse testified that she witnessed Benson agonizing over the decision to sign a letter cutting off contact with Renee, Rita and Ryan on Dec. 27.

Daniels testified that Benson "cried about it, read the ... letter three times, and then decided to place his signature on the document," Reese wrote. "She testified that no one stood over him while he signed it. It was his decision."

Benson issued a statement through the team:

"Gayle and I wish to thank the entire community for the overwhelming support that we have received during this trying time. Through it all, our fans and our sponsors showed unwavering support for our Saints and Pelicans. We just finished minicamp in front of so many of our great fans and I cannot wait for training camp to start in late July.

"On Monday, we will introduce our new Pelicans Head Coach Alvin Gentry. Our football and basketball teams are my focus and that is what has me excited. And finally, I would like to personally and sincerely thank everyone that worked on this case on our behalf -- the lawyers and the staff at the Saints and Pelicans.

"Now I say let's go win another Super Bowl and an NBA Championship."

"He's been a tremendous owner. He's been a fantastic owner. Very supportive. I can't think of one time where there's been something that's really frustrated you. And he's been probably the main reason we were able to win a Super Bowl championship." Sean Payton, on Tom Benson

Top Saints and Pelicans officials, as well as quarterback Drew Brees, have repeatedly vouched for Benson's mental capacity and have publicly supported his desire to transfer ownership to Gayle in the event of his death, saying she would ensure stability and continuity for the franchises.

Coach Sean Payton was asked about the subject Thursday. Though he was reticent to dip into the legal matters, he reiterated his support for Benson.

"He's been a tremendous owner," said Payton, who tried to have an escape clause inserted into his 2012 contract extension related to any possible ownership change. "He's been a fantastic owner, very supportive. I can't think of one time where there's been something that's really frustrated you. And he's been probably the main reason we were able to win a Super Bowl championship."

With either Tom or Gayle acting as owner of the franchises, the current power structure is expected to be unaffected -- led by president Dennis Lauscha and executive vice president Mickey Loomis, who oversee operations for both teams.

The jilted heirs argued that Benson's sudden decision to cut them out of his life late last year followed a pattern of irrational behavior as his mental and physical health declined, including a series of knee surgeries. They also argued that he was under the undue influence of Gayle, his third wife, whom he married in 2004, and executives from the sports franchises.

"Our clients, Renee Benson and Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, are disappointed that the Court opted not to appoint a Curator and Undercurator today to protect their father and grandfather, as well as the teams and businesses," said Randy Smith, the plaintiffs' lawyer, in a statement. "For his sake, and that of the fans, customers, and employees, they will continue to take whatever steps are necessary to assure his well-being and that of the Saints, Pelicans, and Benson Automobile dealerships."

Benson and his attorneys, meanwhile, argued that his decision was years in the making -- that he had repeatedly attempted to groom his former heirs to take over his businesses but they never "rose to the task."

According to the ruling, Benson had begun exploring the prerequisites for making granddaughter Rita his sole successor in the ownership of the Saints and Pelicans as of Dec. 19 of last year. But he "ultimately changed his mind" by Dec. 27.

It's unclear if Benson's change of heart was related to a reported altercation between Rita and Gayle before a Saints game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Dec. 21.

The legal battle over ownership shares held by Renee and the LeBlancs could still be challenging, though, because of complicated issues over irrevocable trusts that were set up for the heirs in both New Orleans and San Antonio, where Benson owns several businesses and Renee and Ryan reside. The biggest issue in those cases is whether Benson will be able to replace shares of the teams with assets of equal value.