Estranged Benson heirs renew calls for psychiatric exam

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The estranged heirs of New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson say his attorneys are opposing an independent psychiatric evaluation for the businessman because they fear the results.

The claim was made in documents filed Friday by attorneys for Benson's daughter, Renee, and her children Rita and Ryan LeBlanc. Last month, the three were removed from Tom Benson's succession plan for his NFL and NBA teams.

Benson now says he wants his wife of 10 years, Gayle Benson, to eventually control the clubs. But his daughter and grandchildren contend in their lawsuit in New Orleans that their 87-year-old patriarch was mentally unfit to make recent changes to his will and is being manipulated by a greedy wife who now controls all access to him.

"If Tom Benson were honestly consistently capable of making reasoned decisions, he would have no problem readily consenting to an examination by an independent doctor," lawyers for the spurned heirs stated.

Tom Benson's lawyers responded with a new filing of their own Friday night calling the spurned heirs' lawsuit "a farce" which is motivated by "insatiable greed," and should be dismissed.

They also stressed that the heirs have conveniently ignored their own role in the family split, and that "Mr. Benson should not have to publicly identify their cruelties, inabilities and indiscretions to justify his business decisions."

"Mr. Benson has spent Petitioners' entire adult lives shielding their shortcomings from public view," said the reply from Tom Benson's attorneys, led by Phil Wittmann.

Wittmann warned he'd produce "ample evidence of Petitioners' personal and business failings" if litigation continues.

Earlier Friday, the attorneys for Renee Benson and her children said the family patriarch's refusal to testify in a parallel case in Texas this week demonstrated that his lawyers were trying to shield him "from the scrutiny of the court."

The Texas case involves control of a trust holding Benson assets in the San Antonio area, which include auto dealerships, a bank and ranch property. It does not involve the pro teams in Louisiana, but is part of the dispute that has publicly erupted in the past month between Tom Benson and close family members who for years appeared to be in line to take over his business empire.

During two days of hearings in San Antonio, Bexar County Judge Tom Rickhoff said it would be helpful to hear from Tom Benson himself, but his lawyers decided against producing him as a witness.

Rickoff then appointed former San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger and estate lawyer Art Bayern to temporarily oversee the trust holding the Texas assets.

Tom Benson's New Orleans attorneys have maintained since the lawsuit was filed that there is no need for a psychiatric evaluation. However, they have said they are open to setting up a meeting between Tom Benson and the judge in the Louisiana case to resolve any mental health concerns, which lawyers for Renee Benson and her children oppose.

"An informal meeting with the court cannot substitute for a medical examination by an expert," they argued in documents.

A hearing in the New Orleans case is set for Tuesday. Saints and Pelicans officials could not immediately confirm whether Benson planned to testify.

Renee Benson and her children still stand to inherit hundreds of millions of dollars from Tom Benson, but no part of the Saints or Pelicans.

Tom Benson has done two brief TV interviews since the lawsuit was filed last month — both with FOX affiliates in New Orleans, which he owns.

In one of them, Benson stated: "People think there's something wrong with me. I've been in the office every day putting in a full day of work and I'm doing fine."

A couple days before last Sunday's Super Bowl, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said Tom Benson has "demonstrated to me that he's got complete control over what he's doing."

One of Tom Benson's granddaughters, Dawn Jones, also has released a statement saying she has a good relationship with her grandfather and Gayle Benson and opposes the lawsuit by her aunt and cousins.

Rita LeBlanc, 38, has worked for the Saints, which her grandfather has owned since 1985, in various roles since 2001, rising during that time to the level of part owner and executive.

But a little over a month ago, she was fired from the clubs, locked out of her office at the teams' headquarters and compelled to hand over keys to her team-issued Mercedes-Benz.

Her mother and brother, who also had been listed as part owners, were likewise removed from executive roles with the clubs and banned from team property.

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