Tom Benson, the 87-year-old billionaire owner of the New Orleans Saints in the NFL as well as the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans, shockingly disowned his adult children and their children earlier this week, cutting his family off from control of his business and sports empire — even though he had long prepared them to take over the family operation.
Instead, Benson shifted all future interests in his massive estate to his third wife, Gayle Marie LaJaunie Bird Benson, to whom he has been married for the past 10 years. In his letter to his heirs informing them of his decision to cut off all contact with them, Benson said their behavior toward his latest wife was “offensive” and “unpleasant.”
But the younger Bensons, in court documents, say that their patriarch’s deteriorating physical and mental health renders him incompetent to make such a drastic decision — and the decision actually came from his wife, who they portray as a manipulative gold digger with designs only on the Benson fortune.
His adopted daughter, Renee LeBlanc, as well as her children, Ryan and Rita Benson LeBlanc, filed a lawsuit this week in Louisiana to block the sudden move, in which the elder Benson fired his granddaughter, Rita, who had been vice-chair of both the Saints and Pelicans as well as Tom Benson’s heir apparent.
With an estimated net worth of $1.6 billion, Benson is the believed to be the richest person in the state of Louisiana.
The lawsuit alleges that Gayle Bird, who is 20 years Tom Benson’s junior, suffered “significant debt and had limited credit” before she first met the billionaire banker in 2004. Before she hooked up with Benson, Gayle “never owned, operated, or managed a substantial business enterprise,” and “had no interest in football, basketball, or in sports in general.”
But when the new couple got hitched in October of 2004, Tom Benson made Gayle agree to a pre-nuptial marriage contract that kept the bulk of his estate out of her hands if they divorced, or if he died.
The suit, however, says that Gayle systematically turned Tom Benson against his family, isolating him from contact with his kids and grandkids, as well as from his friends and trusted business associates — even screening his phone calls, mail, and email — until she alone had influence over his decision-making process.
That process itself has fallen apart due to Tom Benson’s ill-health, the lawsuit claims, saying that he has failed to recognize his own daughter or remember his own age, and has been hospitalized several times in recent months.
The suit also claims that Gayle Benson has kept her husband from consuming properly nutritious meals, confining him largely to a diet of candy, wine, and junk food.
Tom Benson, on the other hand, told a New Orleans TV station Wednesday that he feels, “great, like a 50-year-old,” adding, “How ’bout that, huh? Can’t beat that deal.”