Biz Exclusive: Settlement of Tom Benson suit may leave fans in dark about Saints ownership
NEW ORLEANS – Terms of an agreement over who owns the New Orleans Saints could become final within a few weeks, and while the details may remain under wraps, indications are that the $835 million valuation Tom Benson placed on his heirs' interest in the team was not a high enough price to buy them out.
A federal judge has told the parties to the lawsuit that they must report on July 20 as to whether their proposed agreement has the necessary approvals, including OKs from the National Football League and the National Basketball Association.
The heirs' interest in NBA team the New Orleans Pelicans also is at stake in the case, as is the Benson Tower office building in downtown New Orleans; Champions Square entertainment plaza; television station WVUE; and other pieces of Benson's businesses.
Even after all parties sign off, the public may remain in the dark about ownership details as the terms likely will remain confidential. But comments that Benson's granddaughter, Rita LeBlanc, recently made to a reporter seem to offer a glimpse into the deal.
In an article about LeBlanc published by Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal on June 26, the headline grabber was her comment that, "No matter what happens in the litigation, I'll still be a partial owner" of the Saints.
Assuming it was a statement of fact and not wishful thinking on her part, LeBlanc's comment indicates that her grandfather did not succeed in "buying back" from his heirs' trusts the stock in the Saints and Pelicans that he had previously placed there.
Trusts that Benson created in 2012 for his daughter Renee Benson, and her two children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, held close to 60 percent of all Saints shares and 95 percent of the Pelicans shares, though the shares held by Tom Benson in both teams contained 100 percent of the voting power and control.
After lawyers who are stewards of the trusts rejected Benson's January 2015 attempt to remove from the trusts all shares in the teams in exchange for promissory notes, the court proceedings became a battle to arrive at a fair valuation for the heirs' non-controlling interests.
A court document filed by Benson's lawyers days before they announced a pending settlement shows that their valuation expert pegged the value of the heirs' interest in the team at about $835 million.
But if, as LeBlanc suggests, the heirs expect to remain part owners of the Saints, it appears that Benson's offer fell short.
Speculating on details contained in the pending settlement amounts to a stab in the dark. The deal could, for instance, have the heirs handing over a portion of their interests in some of Tom Benson's holdings – ranging from the sports teams to real estate and five automobile dealerships – in exchange for IOUs and other assets.
Public records show that Benson already transferred to his heirs the San Antonio luxury condominium that he purchased in 2006.
Whether his private jet, which is owned by the holding company that owns the Saints, might also come into play is anybody's guess.
The total value of the 88-year-old Benson's estate likely exceeds $2.5 billion. And statements he released after cutting ties with his daughter and two of his grandchildren indicate that he has revised his will to make his third wife, Gayle, the beneficiary of everything – including controlling interest in the sports teams – that is not contained in his heirs' trusts.
The pending legal settlement could end the last of three lawsuits filed in 2015 in connection with Benson's move to sever ties with his heirs and remove them from his businesses. In one case, Renee Benson succeeded in having her father removed as overseer of a trust set up for her in 1980. And in another, Tom Benson prevailed against his heirs' efforts to have him declared mentally incompetent.
RETURN TO THE GAME?
Meanwhile, LeBlanc's interview with Sports Business Journal provides additional fodder for speculation about what comes next.
LeBlanc, who Tom Benson had previously designated as the future controlling owner of the sports teams, hints that despite no longer being associated with the teams, she would like to remain in the game somehow.
"There are still things I would have wanted to do," she says, then adds: "But I can do them for other teams or other companies."
She also provides clues as to what it was like to grow up as the granddaughter of Tom Benson.
In discussing how she decided to enroll at Texas A&M University after high school, for instance, LeBlanc notes that she thought about going to Loyola or Tulane university but considered them too expensive. “I knew what my grandfather had set aside for me (and) I wasn’t going to ask for more,” she said.
Given that Tom Benson's net worth at that point likely exceeded $200 million, the limit he imposed on her college fund may have reflected his views on private higher education rather than a budget concern.
But LeBlanc's mention of the issue also begs the question: If she was interested in attending a private school, why couldn't she, or her parents, find other means to supplement the cost?
At the time Rita LeBlanc started college, her mother, Renee Benson, was newly divorced, living in a spacious home on Tom Benson's ranch, and had begun receiving from her father monthly payments of $10,000 to spend as she saw fit.
According to her testimony in a lawsuit over a decades-old trust her father had set up, Renee Benson received the payments every month for 20 years, until her father ended them in 2015.
Renee was also a board member and shareholder in Tom Benson's auto dealerships and the Texas bank he owned.
And she received income from a business she set up to provide "management services" to the Texas auto dealerships. Court testimony by one of the dealership managers indicates that the businesses paid Renee Benson's company, which had a handful of employees, about $2 million a year.
Despite these income sources, Renee Benson and her family seemed heavily dependent on Tom Benson to provide for their needs, Rita LeBlanc's comments suggested.
"If my grandfather didn’t fund it, stuff didn’t happen,” LeBlanc said in reference to their Texas ranch.
Near the end of the Sports Business Journal article, the writer makes a statement that likely sent ripples through the offices of Tom Benson's lawyers.
"The disputes that are playing out now are small compared with the inevitable challenge to Benson’s will that will occur after he dies," the reporter wrote.
Assuming that he based this conclusion on his interview with LeBlanc, it would seem that she, her mother and brother have already committed to mounting a legal challenge, after Tom Benson's death, to Gayle Benson's right to inherit control of her husband's most valuable assets.
Kathy Finn is a New Orleans journalist and author of the biography, "Tom Benson: A Billionaire's Journey" (Pelican Publishing Co.), due for release in October.