<
>

Rodney Henry alleges racial discrimination against Gayle Benson in suit

NEW ORLEANS -- A longtime personal assistant to New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Pelicans owner Tom Benson has alleged that Benson's wife, Gayle, racially discriminated against him, harassed him and ultimately pushed him out of a job last year.

Rodney Henry, who worked for Tom Benson for about 25 years, added the allegations against Gayle Benson to an amended lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court and published by NOLA.com. Henry had previously sued the Saints in November, seeking years of back pay and unpaid overtime he felt he was owed.

Henry said in the lawsuit that he always had a strong working relationship with Tom Benson, but Gayle Benson, whom Tom married in 2004, "treated him with disdain and disrespect."

Henry, who is African-American, accused Gayle of twice referring to him as a "black son of a bitch," once directly to his face and another time when he was within earshot.

Henry detailed another anecdote, in which he claimed Gayle Benson required he stay in a small room with no air conditioning or towels in the home the Bensons used during their stay at the team's training camp facility at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. Henry said Tom Benson was outraged when he found out and moved Henry to a full-sized room, then, after Tom Benson left the room, Gayle Benson looked at Henry and screamed, "I hate you."

Henry also claimed that Gayle Benson accused him of giving information to Tom Benson's granddaughter, Rita LeBlanc, during a legal battle over Benson's family inheritance.

Henry said that after he reported Gayle Benson's discriminatory comments to the Saints' human resources department, she "became even more hostile ... and instructed others within the Saints' organization to ostracize Mr. Henry."

The Saints responded with a statement on Wednesday denying "any wrongdoing by anyone within the organization" and saying that Tom and Gayle Benson are "extremely hurt" by the lawsuit and the "ridiculous accusations made in the filing."

"Just like any other employer, our organization sometimes has to make difficult decisions that are in the best interest of the company," Saints spokesman Greg Bensel said in the statement. "We did so here in the matter of Mr. Henry's termination. Unfortunately, when those decisions are made, as is the case here, employees often take it personally and accuse their employers of wrongdoing in an effort to justify -- in their own minds -- why their employment was terminated.

"Both Tom and Gayle Benson are extremely hurt by Mr. Henry's filing yesterday in federal court in New Orleans and the ridiculous accusations made in the filing. They had hoped that the dismissal by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission of his claims would end this matter. The Bensons considered Mr. Henry to be a part of their family, providing for him and his children for some 20 years, and they are both very disappointed that he has decided to assert these accusations of harassment and discrimination.

"Make no mistake, the Bensons and the New Orleans Saints will vigorously defend these baseless claims."

Over the past year, Tom Benson, 88, has been engaged in a bitter legal feud with his daughter and grandchildren since he announced plans to cut them out of his vast business empire and leave everything to his wife in the event of his death.

Benson's spurned heirs tried to have him declared mentally incompetent last year, but a New Orleans Civil Court judge found Benson to be competent. An appeal is pending, with arguments scheduled to be heard this week.

Henry gave a deposition in that case last year and said he was "abruptly terminated" just one week after the judge gave his ruling.

Henry's lawsuit alleges that he was not fired until after he gave his deposition, which suggests Gayle Benson and the Saints wanted to influence his testimony.

Henry originally sued the Saints in November over the unpaid overtime. He claimed he worked long and unscheduled hours and was wrongly classified as a salaried employee. Henry said he was making $50,000 per year at the time of his termination.

In court last week, the Saints responded that as part of Henry's employment agreement, he needed to take up his claims with the NFL. Henry signed a contract agreeing to binding arbitration, with commissioner Roger Goodell having final say over such employee disputes.