Saints Billionaire Loses Control of Texas Assets for Now

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Tom Benson, the billionaire owner of the New Orleans Saints, was temporarily removed from control of his Texas car dealerships and banks by a judge overseeing part of an inheritance fight between the tycoon and his daughter and her children.

Texas probate Judge Thomas Rickhoff extended a freeze over the San Antonio-based portion of Benson’s interests Monday by appointing former San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger as receiver over the heirs’ trust. The move doesn’t affect control of the Saints or Benson’s Pelicans pro basketball team, which will be decided by a New Orleans judge in a separate case. His net worth is estimated at $1.7 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The 87-year-old businessman abruptly cut all ties with his daughter and her children just after Christmas in a terse note. The team owner said family strife had escalated to the point he never wanted to see or hear from them again, according to a court filing.

Benson then fired his daughter, Renee, and her children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, from key jobs in his sports, banking and automotive empire. The heirs question whether it was Benson’s decision to cut ties or whether he’s being manipulated by his third wife and suffering from health problems exacerbated by a diet of candy, ice cream, soda and red wine. They sued to bar him from taking assets from their trust.

Benson said in a statement that he changed his succession plan because he believes the teams will be better off under the direction of his wife, Gayle, 67, than managed by his daughter and grandchildren, as he’d originally planned. The Bensons renewed their vows in October at a New Orleans ceremony that Renee, 59, didn’t attend but her children did, according to court testimony.

‘Evident Intention’

Benson’s December note cutting off ties was contrary to the “evident intention of the settlers of the trust at the time it was established,” Rickhoff said. “The evidence of the daughter’s behavior that would generate this anger was meager.”

Rickhoff said receivers are necessary “to limit, if possible, the damage to this trust.” He ordered the receivers to drop all other legal work to concentrate on the Benson trust.

David Beck, Tom Benson’s lawyer, said he’d seek an accelerated appeal from the Texas appellate court in San Antonio. He said the appeal will mirror concerns Benson raised in the objections he filed with Rickhoff this morning to the appointment of a receiver at this point in the dispute.

Benson contends he didn’t have proper notice that the judge was considering appointing a receiver over his assets and that his daughter presented insufficient evidence to support that intervention.

“We anticipated this was what was going to happen, based on the judge’s comments last week,” Beck said after the hearing. “We also knew we were going to appeal.”

Mental Competency

In New Orleans, the heirs are challenging the patriarch’s mental competency and are asking a Louisiana state judge to appoint someone to manage all of Benson’s personal and business affairs, including control of the ball clubs. A hearing in that matter is set for Tuesday.

In San Antonio, the heirs obtained a restraining order to temporarily prevent Benson from locking them out and stripping their stakes in his Texas automobile dealerships and banks.

Rickhoff repeatedly said he isn’t going to rule on Benson’s mental fitness, deferring to the New Orleans court. “It is sufficient to consider only the trustee’s actions and statements and whether they damaged the trust, not why he acted, perplexing as that is,” Rickhoff said in his order Monday.

Following a hearing last week, Rickhoff said, he gave Benson a three-day weekend to take corrective measures to put any fears about his fitness to rest.

Bookkeeping Records

In that time, however, Benson didn’t return funds he yanked from the trust’s accounts, offer bookkeeping records he’d ordered secretly removed, or offer an explanation for cutting off his heirs, Rickhoff said in court papers.

Evidence and testimony presented at last week’s hearing show that Benson has “substantial health issues, and this trustee does not seem to be improving,” Rickhoff wrote in an addendum to his order today. “The trustee himself confesses that ‘at my age’ the pressures are too much.”

Assigning a receiver is “the safest thing to do,” Rickhoff said at a hearing Monday. The appointment doesn’t favor either side, but assists the family “in calming everything down while you proceed in New Orleans,” he said.

He ordered the trustees to report back in a month and consult with him on any major decisions regarding the assets and companies in the trust. “That way, I’ll know if it goes south early,” Rickhoff told the lawyers at Monday’s hearing.

“Appointing a receiver is not a compromise -- it is an extraordinary remedy that must be cautiously applied,” Benson’s lawyers said in court papers filed before Monday’s hearing. Taking control of the trust away from the billionaire would “needlessly drain trust assets while trampling Mr. Benson’s rights,” they said.

The Texas case is Renee Benson v. Thomas Milton Benson Jr., 155,572-A, Probate Court No. 2, Bexar County, Texas (San Antonio). The Louisiana case is In Re: Interdiction of Thomas Milton Benson Jr., 15-655, Civil District Court, Parish of Orleans, Louisiana (New Orleans).