National media outlets seek to unseal files from 2015 Tom Benson mental competency lawsuit
By Ramon Antonio Vargas
April 03, 2020
|New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson poses for a photo with his wife Gayle Benson and his granddaughter, Rita LeBlanc, before an NFL football game against the Minnesota Vikings in New Orleans, Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014.|
Photo by Bill Haber
National media outlets are asking a New Orleans court to unseal confidential motions and other documents filed when estranged relatives of late Saints owner Tom Benson challenged his mental competency five years ago.
The sealed filings stem from a blockbuster lawsuit in 2015 that pitted Benson against his daughter and grandchildren. They argued that the billionaire owner of the NFL's Saints and NBA's Pelicans was mentally unfit when he transferred ownership of his business empire to his third wife, Gayle.
The court proceedings occurred behind closed doors and reams of records have remained shielded from public view after Orleans Parish Civil District Judge Kern Reese ruled that their release would violate Benson’s privacy rights. Following an eight-day trial, Reese ruled that Benson was competent, which allowed Gayle to inherit control of his sports franchises and other business properties following his death at age 90 in March 2018.
In a 12-page filing dated March 25, a New Orleans-based attorney representing CNN, the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post argued that trial transcripts, evidentiary exhibits and preliminary pleadings associated with the case should now be released, given that Benson’s death was more than two years ago.
Mary Ellen Roy of the Phelps Dunbar law firm contends that the public has a right to the information because Benson’s NFL and NBA teams have received millions of dollars’ worth of taxpayer support in the form of “cash payments, tax breaks and inflated rental payments” as part of a deal tying the Saints to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome through 2025.
Roy also argued there has been a heightened interest in the operations and ownership of the football club after it was revealed over the last year that Saints executives gave public relations advice to the Archdiocese of New Orleans as local Catholic leaders sought to manage a 2018 flare-up of the church’s clergy sex abuse crisis.
Roy is separately representing the AP in its request for the public release of various communications between the archdiocese and Saints that are sealed in one of several pending lawsuits against the archdiocese from alleged clergy-abuse victims.
There has not yet been a ruling on that request.
The Bensons' longtime attorneys have not formally responded to the March 25 filing. A Saints spokesman didn't immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.
It's difficult to predict how Roy will fare in pushing to unseal documents related to the 2015 trial. Judges in Louisiana enjoy considerable deference on orders to seal records when they relate to mental health issues like those at the heart of the lawsuit against Benson.
However, the law also acknowledges a diminished expectation of privacy after death. Roy's filing says her clients understand that specific medical information may need to be redacted in the event of a release.
The lawsuit leveled against Tom Benson by his daughter, Renee LeBlanc, and her children, Ryan and Rita LeBlanc, came after he banished them from his personal life and moved to make Gayle the primary heir to his billion-dollar business empire. He also fired his daughter and grandchildren from jobs they held in his various businesses.
In their lawsuit, Renee, Rita and Ryan — relatives from a prior marriage that came to be known as "the three Rs" throughout the trial — questioned whether Benson was too enfeebled at the time to take such drastic action. After Reese ruled in Benson’s favor, two higher courts left that decision in place.
The complex legal feud that resulted from Benson’s falling out with his relatives didn’t end there. Another lawsuit in federal court involved lucrative but non-voting shares in the Saints and Pelicans. Benson sought to reclaim those shares from trust funds set up for his family members to cut them out even further, but he needed to replace them with assets of equal value.
Benson and trustees representing the LeBlancs settled that case in 2017. The exact terms are confidential, but multiple sources familiar with the deal confirmed that it involves the trust fund containing the controlling ownership of the sports teams — set up in Gayle Benson’s benefit — making intermittent payments to the relatives’ trust funds to buy back the non-voting shares of the sports teams over time.
That buyback has started, the sources said, but it does not appear to have been completed. Notably, state business records still list the trustee of the relatives’ trust funds as an officer of the Saints’ holding company. Those records list Gayle Benson as a manager.
A third court case resulting from the family rift resulted in a settlement under which Benson ceded to the LeBlancs control of yet another family trust fund in Texas which contained car dealerships and a hunting ranch, among other things.
The LeBlancs later sold the car dealerships. Ryan LeBlanc runs the ranch and renamed it after his maternal grandmother, the late Shirley Benson, who was Tom Benson’s first wife.