Documents show fracturing of family running Saints, Pelicans

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The New Orleans Saints were in the midst of 2014 training camp in West Virginia when team president Dennis Lauscha received a stern message from owner Tom Benson’s daughter.

Renee Benson had not yet been disowned by her father, and the current legal struggle among Benson family members for control of the NFL’s Saints and NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans was still five months away. But documents obtained by The Associated Press show the extent to which distrust was growing between Tom Benson’s third wife, Gayle, and the family of Benson’s daughter from his first marriage months before they wound up in court.

In a terse email to Lauscha, Renee Benson expressed concern that she and her two children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, hadn’t found out about a surgical procedure performed on the family’s 87-year-old patriarch until after the fact. And when they did find out, it was not from Tom Benson himself, or even from an email update that Gayle Benson had sent to about two dozen people. It was from Lauscha, who had forwarded Gayle Benson’s update to them.

“So he has this done without any of us knowing … This is not how our family does things!” Renee Benson wrote to Lauscha on Aug. 7. “Please. Keep us better informed!”

In late December, Tom Benson notified his daughter and her two children that he was disowning them and removing them from ownership and executive positions in his professional sports teams. The teams’ owner then announced in January that, upon his death, he would leave control of his business empire to Gayle Benson, whom he married in 2004.

The new succession plan spawned a lawsuit by the estranged heirs, who’ve asked a judge in New Orleans to declare Tom Benson mentally unfit to oversee his own affairs. The lawsuit painted Gayle Benson as a manipulative woman who has conspired with certain Saints and Pelicans executives to isolate an enfeebled Tom Benson from family, and to seize control of his business empire.

Currently, Tom Benson has been undergoing a court-ordered psychiatric examination which the judge wants completed by Friday. The results, which the judge has ordered to be kept private, could help decide who controls New Orleans’ major pro sports franchises.

The Saints did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the documents on behalf of Tom or Gayle Benson.

Representatives for Renee Benson, and Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, also declined comment.

The documents obtained by AP include a confidential letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell which outlined Tom Benson’s intention, as recently as last June, to name his now-estranged daughter and her children as “voting co-trustees” of Saints assets placed in trust for them, and to name Rita LeBlanc as owner representative, giving her authority to represent the club at NFL owners meetings.

That letter was crafted about a half year before Tom Benson’s attorneys asserted in legal documents in January that Benson decided to change his succession plan “after years of concern and misgivings about Petitioners’ abilities to competently participate in (and eventually, perhaps, take over) the management of his businesses.”

The AP also obtained emails Gayle Benson sent on Aug. 7 and Sept. 4, each providing medical updates about her husband following surgical procedures on his knee. Renee Benson and her two children were initially excluded from receiving either of those emails until Lauscha forwarded them.

In her response to the Aug. 7 email, Rita LeBlanc told the Saints team president that Gayle Benson was defying Tom Benson’s instructions to keep family members informed about his health.

Tom Benson “specifically told our attorneys he wants us informed of his health care,” LeBlanc wrote. “There is no reason to inform employees and not family members.”

Documents show that by Nov. 21, Rita LeBlanc was so exasperated by the lack of information she was receiving about her grandfather’s health that she asked attorney Carol Baskin to draft a letter to Tom Benson’s physicians. She wanted the letter to request that doctors at least communicate directly with her mother about each procedure performed on her grandfather.

“We have no accurate accounting of how many procedures he has had to date, nor specifically how invasive or how many times he has been put under anesthesia,” LeBlanc wrote to Baskin. “The current obstructionist behavior on his wife’s part is not tolerable.”

This article was written by Brett Martel from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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