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Tom Benson found competent; keeps control of Saints, Pelicans

NEW ORLEANS -- New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson remained in control of both franchises Wednesday after a state appeals court affirmed last year's ruling that he is mentally competent to run his businesses.

Benson, 88, was sued by his daughter and grandchildren last year after he ousted them as heirs to his businesses and named his wife, Gayle, as his successor. Benson's daughter and grandchildren claimed that he was in mental and physical decline and that he was being unduly influenced by Gayle, his third wife, whom he married in 2004.

"I am hopeful one day soon that all of their ungratefulness will end and I can continue to enjoy my work with the Saints and Pelicans without further interference," Benson said in a statement.

A civil court judge ruled last June that Benson was competent after an eight-day trial. That ruling was upheld Wednesday by a panel of three judges with Louisiana's Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal.

Benson's spurned heirs -- daughter Renee Benson and grandchildren Rita LeBlanc and Ryan LeBlanc -- argued among other things that Benson should have been required to testify in open court and face cross-examination. Instead, Benson was questioned at his office by Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese with attorneys from both sides present.

"We are disappointed with the ruling of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal," Randall A. Smith, attorney for Benson's daughter and grandchildren, said in a statement Wednesday. "The Court held that a person whose mental capacity is questioned need not be called to the stand, a ruling which we believe allows for those manipulating someone in a weakened state to conceal the truth. We do appreciate the Court acknowledging that there was much conflicting evidence presented at trial, and that the judges who heard this appeal may have reached a different result than the trial judge. Our clients are currently considering their options, including bringing the important legal issues involved before the Louisiana Supreme Court. Renee, Rita and Ryan love and miss Tom Benson very much and will continue to try to protect him."

Reese strongly vouched for Benson's mental acumen in his written decision, pointing to his conversation with Benson as well as testimony from two of three psychiatric experts and a former private nurse for Benson as leading factors.

The attorney for the ousted heirs, Randy Smith, told the New Orleans Advocate that his clients will consider appealing to the state Supreme Court. There are also other court cases pending in their bitter legal battle.

Most important, Benson is trying to remove non-voting ownership shares in both teams from a group of family trusts, which is being debated in a New Orleans federal court. Benson can remove the teams if he replaces them with assets of equal value.

The former heirs have also petitioned the Louisiana Supreme Court to open some of the court records from Benson's competency case to the public. The proceedings in the original trial and the appeal were closed to the public and the media.

Last week, the two sides settled a dispute over another family trust in Texas, agreeing to let Renee replace her father as trustee.

"I am grateful that the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal has affirmed the ruling that was handed down in the Civil District Court by Judge Kern Reese in this case where my daughter and two grandchildren attempted to have me interdicted," Benson said in his statement. "This continues to be a very sad and trying time for me and my wife Gayle. I am hopeful that the 4th Circuit's Opinion today will end this litigation.

"Last week, I signed the documents to settle the Shirley Benson Trust in Texas -- a trust that I established, managed and successfully grew for the benefit of my daughter and grandchildren over many years. That settlement had my complete consent and authorization as the assets in that trust were left to my daughter and grandchildren in my former wife's will. I saw no further need to manage those assets for those who have demonstrated such ingratitude toward me over the course of the last year."