Judge opts to close trial involving Saints, Pelicans owner

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A judge has decided to bar the public from a trial in which estranged heirs of New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson intend to argue that their patriarch was mentally unfit when he ousted them from ownership stakes in the franchises.

New Orleans civil court Judge Kern Reese said his ruling is meant to protect the 87-year-old Benson's medical privacy rights and confidential information about the business operations of the NFL and NBA clubs.

Lawyers for Benson had asked for proceedings to be sealed, while Benson's disowned daughter, Renee Benson, and her children, Rita and Ryan Leblanc, wanted at least some portions of the trial open to public scrutiny.

Reese said it would not be practical to constantly open or close court because nearly every witness will be asked about Benson's mental health. Trial is set for June 1.

Benson announced in January that he wants his third wife, Gayle, whom he married in 2004, to inherit full control of his teams as well as other business interests such as car dealerships, a FOX-affiliated television station in New Orleans and real estate that includes a downtown office high-rise.

The same week the new succession plan was announced, the three heirs filed suit, alleging that Gayle Benson has increasingly sought to isolate her husband from family and conspired with top Saints and Pelicans executives to seize control of the franchises.

The spurned heirs asked the judge to order a psychiatric evaluation of Tom Benson. Reese granted that request in February, calling for an evaluation performed by a panel of three psychiatrists — one chosen by each side and third psychiatrist agreed upon by the first two.

Reese also ordered that the contents of the psychiatrists' report would remain private.

"While we agree the courtroom should be closed during testimony by psychiatrists, we hoped the public would be able to hear other witnesses set the record straight, under oath, particularly after the Benson public relations machine had used the media to spread misinformation about the matter," attorney Randall A. Smith, who represents Renee Benson and her children, said after Tuesday's ruling. "For Gayle and Tom Benson's lawyers to argue now that the entire proceeding should be kept private is hypocritical."

Attorney Phil Wittmann, who represents Tom and Gayle Benson, disputed the notion that his clients deployed a "public relations machine" in an effort to gain an upper hand in the dispute and said the law clearly gives the court discretion to close trials involving sensitive health and financial information.

"That type of information is really interwoven in the testimony of any witness who may be called," Wittmann said, stressing that the case has drawn heavy media attention. "So the closing of the courtroom is simply to protect the presumption of privacy in favor of Mr. Benson, and I think it's entirely appropriate."

Renee Benson is Tom Benson's only living child and for decades has worked in his businesses in Louisiana and Texas.

Rita LeBlanc has worked for the Saints since 2001 and since Hurricane Katrina had become one of the premier public faces of the franchise during ceremonies on game days or at events involving civic or business leaders. She has performed similar tasks for the Pelicans since her grandfather bought the NBA team in 2012.

Ryan LeBlanc has managed some of his grandfather's businesses, primarily in Texas.

The family dispute also has spawned a separate lawsuit in federal court regarding the legality of Benson's attempt to remove shares in the clubs from irrevocable trusts set up for his since-estranged heirs and replace those assets with more than $550 million in assets consisting mostly of promissory notes.

Tom Benson has maintained that his heirs will continue be well taken care of, with hundreds of millions in assets being transferred to them, but that they simply won't inherit any control of his pro teams and other parts of his business empire.

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