Exclusive: Tom Benson speaks to FOX 8 for first time since family power struggle

Exclusive: Tom Benson speaks to FOX 8 for first time since family power struggle

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Tom Benson spoke to FOX 8 on camera Friday for the first time since a lawsuit was filed against him by family members, claiming he was mentally and physically unfit to manage his business.

Benson and his wife Gayle briefly spoke to FOX 8 Friday as they arrived at Saints/Pelicans headquarters in Metairie.

"We're getting ready for the season. It starts now, you know, the football season. We've still got the Pelicans and they have to go a long way, so it's quite busy. That's why I'm here instead of being on my boat," said Benson, who rolled down the window of his vehicle to briefly talk on camera. Following the brief statement, the two drove off.

He did not speak directly about the lawsuit.

Rita Leblanc and other family members filed a lawsuit claiming that Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson is mentally and physically unfit to manage his businesses.

The suit was filed Thursday, just one day after Tom Benson, who also owns FOX 8, announced he was turning control of his business interests to his wife of 10 years, Gayle Benson, when he dies. The lawsuit seeks to block the new succession plan.

Tom Benson issued the following statement Thursday night in response to the lawsuit:

"I am extremely disappointed by the lawsuit filed against me today by my daughter and two grandchildren. Their allegations regarding my mental health are completely meritless and their allegations against my wife equally unfounded. I will vigorously defend my decisions and the businesses I have built. The false accusations in this suit further support the actions I have taken in changing the succession and transfer of ownership. There is a small sign that sits on my desk and simply states "Tough times never last; but tough people do." Make no mistake, I will be back in the office tomorrow morning working hard, as I do every day, to ensure that the Saints and Pelicans are positioned for long-term success. This State, City and our great fans deserve that. I have instructed my staff to have no comment on this lawsuit moving forward."

The 87-year-old announced last year that his daughter, Renee Benson, would get a 60 percent controlling interest in the teams. Rita and her brother, Ryan Leblanc, would have each received 20 percent.

The suit attempts to paint Gayle Benson as a gold digger who is trying to take advantage of the Saints owner's health. It asks the court to appoint Renee Benson as executor of Tom Benson's sports and business empire with Rita Leblanc taking a secondary position.

"Sadly, the Benson family was forced to take this action in the best interests of Tom Benson and his legacy, the customers of the Benson family automobile dealerships, the employees of all of the family enterprises, and the multitude of Pelicans and Saints fans," Randy Smith, attorney for the plaintiffs, said.

The 27-page suit lays out a lengthy story of Tom Benson's life and paints a story of manipulation in the years since he married Gayle. It goes into the businessman's recent health problems and says Gayle Benson didn't let the family know about Tom Benson's deteriorating health

The suit alleges, in the past several months, Tom Benson "has been heavily medicated." The suit goes on to say "he has acknowledged to others that he has been having difficulty thinking and suffering from apparent memory lapses." The children say Gayle Benson has been substituting healthy meals with candy, ice cream, sodas and red wine, according to the suit.

The suit also claims Tom Benson forgets the name of his doctors "and on occasion the first name of his current wife, Gayle." He also recently said the current president of the United States is Ronald Reagan, according to the suit.

On Dec. 27, Tom Benson "supposedly" wrote an email to Renee Benson, Rita and Ryan Leblanc saying he did not want to see them again and they were banned from Saints, Pelicans and FOX 8 facilities, according to the suit. They were also relieved of making personnel decisions on behalf of any of Tom Benson's businesses.

Former Saints first round draft pick Robert Meachem said he is not surprised.

"I've seen this two years ago and it's nothing against Rita," Meachem said. "I knew before that Mrs. Benson had real estate and she shut all of her stuff down for Mr. (Benson)."

Meachem said he thinks Gayle Benson is capable of running a professional sports franchise.

Gayle Benson said in a statement she plans to continue to secure his legacy. She said she has learned a lot from the Saints and Pelicans owner about running a franchise.

"What I have learned from his is that to build a strong community, you must first be willing to give, to help those in need and support those that are doing good. Then and only then can the community give back to you," she said.

Rita Leblanc was once named to Forbes' 10 most powerful women in sports list. Nola.com | The Times-Picayune reported she recently vacated her office at the teams' headquarters and her company issued car and phone had been taken away.

Tom Benson's daughter and her children had been listed as part owners of the Saints in the 2014 media guide. Rita Leblanc was listed as vice chairman of the board for the Saints. Wednesday, the Saints website only listed Tom and Gayle Benson as owners of the Saints.

Before news of the lawsuit broke, fans said the change is a light breeze compared to the storms the teams have weathered before and they will get through this as they always have.

"It's a lot of pressure, whoever's going to own them," Saints fan Jenny Killeen said. "So maybe it will all turn out for the best. That's what I think."

Other fans could see a family fight brewing.

"I'm assuming that there was some betrayal... or something happened in order for (Tom Benson) to snatch (Rita Leblanc) like that," Eddie Sanabra said. "But his wife has got her rights too. It's a touchy situation."

Now, many fans are just shaking their heads. A fight between one of the most powerful families in Louisiana has sent shockwaves through the community. Fans say they do not know what to believe. They just hope this billion dollar battle will be worked out soon.

Copyright 2015 WVUE. All rights reserved.