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Attorney fires back at Saints/Pels owner's heirs

Attorney for Tom Benson argues heirs have no basis for petition.

NEW ORLEANS - Attorneys for the owner of the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans, Tom Benson, fired back at his daughter and grandchildren in court Tuesday, arguing in a case filing that they have no legal right to try to get him declared incompetent.

It's the latest in the battle over future control of the Saints and the Pelicans, after Benson decided last week to put the team in the hands of his wife, Gayle, not his daughter, Rene Leblanc, or his grandchildren, Ryan and Rita Benson Leblanc.

Tuesday, attorney Phil Wittmann filed an exception for no cause of action countering the heirs' petition for interdiction in which they are asking a judge to declare Benson incapable of making sound business decisions.

"Petitioners [the heirs] are not, as they claim in their petition, trying to protect Mr. Benson and his business interests. Rather, they are cynically employing the interdiction procedure to wrest control of those business interests from Mr. Benson," Wittmann's latest court filing reads.

Tom and Gayle Benson are one of Louisiana's power couples. The couple married before Hurricane Katrina, and since then Tom Benson has taken the Saints to the Super Bowl and acquired the New Orleans Pelicans basketball team.

Tom and Gayle signed a standard pre-nuptial agreement in 2004 that keeps their assets separate and would give Gayle $2 million if they ever split.

But that agreement does nothing to determine the future of the two teams.

"The effects of the pre-nup could be undone by a subsequent will or a trust," said attorney Doug Sunseri, an attorney and a former employee of Benson and the Saints.

He said the family struggle over control of the team will be closely looked at by the courts, the National Basketball Association and the National Football League. That look will likely dig into Gayle's background.

She owned an interior design business in the '80s and '90s and a had a string of small-claim lawsuits filed against her over it in first city and civil district courts, something not unusual for any business person, her attorney argues.

She was also arrested in connection with the alleged theft of furniture in one of the cases. The district attorney's office didn't prosecute her for it and she later sued in federal court over the arrest.

But the question ultimately becomes how much of that background will play a role in the vetting process, if any, by the NFL and the NBA over the transfer of ownership, whenever Tom Benson is no longer in charge.

"I think it raises a concern, but I don't think the concern would be enough to stop or have the NFL vote against the succession plan," Sunseri said.

Gayle Bird, her previous married name, was on financially shaky ground at one point, with one bank beginning foreclosure proceedings on her then-Uptown home. She had both state and federal tax liens against her business for failure to pay taxes. All of her debts have since been settled.

The Bensons' attorney Phil Wittmann said it will "absolutely not" be a problem in the vetting process.

"They could be looking at it in terms of three possibilities: who will be best for the succession of the Saints? Will it be Rita? Would it be Gayle Benson? Or would it be best with a third person to come in with the NFL selling the franchise? I think they would probably determine it will be Gayle Benson," Sunseri said.

Wittmann is now arguing Benson's heirs have no right to challenge his competence and said Tuesday that, "No one other than Tom has ever had control of those assets. Tom has all the voting stock of the Saints and the Pelicans and Benson Tower and he's exercising that power now."

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