- New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson, 87, announced in January he was transferring control of the teams to his wife Gayle, 67
- The auto-dealership magnate's original will stipulated that his daughter Renee LeBlanc and her two children would become the teams' owners
- Granddaughter Rita, 38, was vice-chairman of the Saints but was cut
- Less than 24 hours after the ownership change was announced, Renee and her children filed a lawsuit to stop the move
- They claim that Benson is not in control of his faculties, thinks the president is Ronald Reagan, and is living on candy
- Also claim he is being manipulated by his twenty years younger wife
- Benson says he is 'shocked' by their behavior and that none were worthy of taking over the empire except his wife
By Ryan Parry In New Orleans and Daily Mail Reporters
Published: 07:07 GMT, 7 March 2015 | Updated: 07:28 GMT, 7 March 2015
Tom Benson, the self-made billionaire who owns two of the NFL and NBA's wealthiest franchises, has broken his silence over the vicious row that has torn his family - and potentially his fortune - apart.
The 87-year-old owns the New Orleans Saints football team and the New Orleans Pelicans basketball team and is considered the richest man in Louisiana, worth an estimated $1.9 million.
However in January he announced plans to cut his children and grandchildren out of their ownership of the teams once he dies, and transfer everything into the name of his third wife, Gayle Benson, causing them family to immediately file lawsuits against him.
Benson will undergo a variety assessments over the coming weeks, as adopted daughter Renee, 59, and her children Rita, 38, and Ryan, 34, Benson LeBlanc - all of whom had major roles within Benson's empire before being banished from the business - now attempt to prove he is 'mentally unfit'.
They claim Benson subsists on candy, ice cream, soda and red wine, believes Ronald Reagan is President, and that Gayle Benson has poisoned him against them in her quest to take over his empire.
However Benson is hitting back, and has spoken out about the high-profile inheritance dispute.
Vicious row: New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson, 87, announced in January he was transferring control of the teams to his wife Gayle, 67 (left) and cutting off his family, including granddaughter Rita, 38 (right), who was vice-chairman of the Saints. The family are now suing to show Benson is 'unfit'
Family divided: Tom Benson (center) has cut his grandaughter Rita Benson LeBlanc (far left) out of the ownership of the New Orleans Pelicans (pictured) and the Saints in favor of his wife Gayle (third from right)
'Was I surprised? I think so, because when your family attacks you, it's kind of hard to take, hard to understand,' he told The New York Times as part of a sit-down feature.
'At first, I couldn't believe it, you know.
'But I finally accepted it, and hopefully it will work out all right.
'The only bad thing is, you just go your way and leave us alone, you know?'
Gayle Benson - who is 20 years her husband's junior and had never attended a football match until they met - did not shy away from her reputation as never leaving Benson's side.
'I'm with him 24 hours a day,' she told The Times.
'We have a very close relationship.
'He tells and talks to me a lot about what's going on. It's been a big help to me.'
So close are the couple, all calls made to Benson outside the office go to his wife, because he doesn't own a cellphone.
'He doesn’t have a phone, he doesn’t want to deal with it,' Mrs Benson said.
'He would rather me tell him about it.'
Mr. Benson then chimed in: 'But one thing about it, she doesn’t ever try to overrule me.'
Mr Benson maintains that, despite what his family says in their lawsuit, he chose his wife to take over the teams and other businesses because none of them were worthy of the task, despite years of trying to groom them into the role.
He also says they have received 'hundreds of millions dollars' from his already, and he is just stopping their future investment in his companies.
Tom and Gayle Benson married in 2004, and over the past 10 years she has styled herself as the 'First Lady of Louisiana sports'.
She is now holds the keys to the Benson business empire.
Benson says he is even willing to set aside a pre-nuptial agreement they signed and transfer ownership of the Saints in the NFL and the Pelicans to his wife.
Rivals: Rita Benson LeBlanc, 38, (left) and Gayle Benson, 67, (right) are on the opposite sides of a law suit over who should control Tom Benson's business and sports empire
Frozen out: Tom Benson's daughter and grandchildren claim that Gayle, his third wife, has manipulated him to remove them from his businesses, and that he is now confused, thinking Ronald Reagan is the president
Former friends: Before the bitter fallout, Rita Benson (right) was frequently to be seen alongside her grandfather Tom (center) and his wife Gayle (second from right) at Saints' and Pelicans' events
Also affected: Renee Benson, 59, has also been banned from the stadium by her father and is part of the bitter lawsuit
Benson sent his family a letter in January informing them of a decision to cut all ties.
THE LETTER AT THE HEART OF THE FEUD AMONG THE BENSONS
Dear Renee, Rita and Ryan,
During the over 80 years of my life, I have built a rather large estate which was intended to mainly be for you all as my family.
Suddenly after I remarried you all became offensive and did not act in an appropriate manner and even had arguments among yourselves which created a very unpleasant family situation which I will not stand for. It made me very unhappy and uncomfortable.
This situation cannot continue at my age.
Because of the facts set out above and the heart break you have caused me I want no further contact with any of you and you will not be allowed to enter the Saint's facilities or games, the Basketball facilities or Pelicans games, the Benson Towers, their facilities or the automotive facilities in New Orleans and will have no right to give directions, orders or hire or fire any of the personnel,
Sincerely yours, your father and grandfather,
Most affected by the schism is Benson's granddaughter Rita, who as vice-chairman of the Saints' board was instrumental in the club's success and had been seen as Benson's heir apparent.
But Benson insists that Rita, Ryan and Renee's past behavior towards his wife Gayle was 'offensive' and 'unpleasant' and he has had enough.
In their lawsuit the younger family members branded Benson's wife a manipulative gold digger hell-bent on claiming the fortune for herself, and allege she is pulling the strings behind any decision-making.
They also claim their patriarch's deteriorating physical and mental health renders him incompetent to make such big decisions.
They say Benson can't recognize his own daughter and doesn't remember how old he is.
The younger Bensons filed the motion in Louisiana to block the sudden proposed move to oust them.
The lawsuit alleges that former interior designer Gayle suffered 'significant debt and had limited credit' before she first met the billionaire former car dealer in 2004 whom she married months later following a whirlwind romance.
Before she met Benson, Gayle 'never owned, operated, or managed a substantial business enterprise,' and 'had no interest in football, basketball, or in sports in general,' the suit claims.
The legal action has raised serious questions over the Louisiana power couple and whether Gayle is suitable to take the helm at Benson's Saints and Pelicans franchises, part of the billionaire's auto-dealership magnate's fortune.
And a Daily Mail Online investigation last month unearthed details from Gayle's past, painting a worrying picture of the woman always at Tom Benson's side.
Our investigation has revealed dozens of court cases which reveal Gayle was sued for not paying her bills on time, was saddled with debt and was even arrested for theft.
Gayle, born Gayle Marie LaJaunie, grew up with her younger sister Brenda and younger brother Wayne in Algiers, a poverty-stricken suburb of New Orleans.
Their tiny wooden home was barely big enough for the family of five and they scraped by on the meager salary of their father, Francis LaJaunie, who worked as a maintenance man at a food store.
Gayle was raised in a devout Catholic family and attended St Joseph, St Anthony and Holy Name of Mary High School before graduating from Martin Behrman High School in 1964.
Renamed: The Lady Gayle Marie was named in Gayle Benson's honor by her husband. It had previously been called the Grace Marie after his previous wife
New home: This is the multi-million home Gayle Benson now shares with her husband Tom in the center of New Orleans
Contrast: The LaJaunie family home on Whitney Avenue, New Orleans, where Grace Benson was brought up
She started work as a receptionist in a dental office, before picking up secretarial jobs.
She then worked for a home-sales jewelry business called 'Celebrity Jewellery'.
Married twice before meeting Benson, Gayle's second husband was Thomas Bird, nicknamed T-Bird.
He was a building contractor and they set up a company buying and renovating houses in New Orleans in the 1970s.
But after they divorced in 1986, due to 'personal differences', Gayle tried to run her own interior design company called Gayle Bird Interiors Ltd.
Having missed out on any higher education Gayle took a college correspondence course in interior design in the 1980s.
'My mother would complain; she said interior design was not a real job,' she told The Times-Picayune.
But unfortunately Gayle's solo venture was a disaster.
A family source, who asked to remain anonymous, told Daily Mail Online: 'She just couldn't do it alone, she started to lose money and the bills and the debts mounted.
'She always seemed to have trouble in the courts because she hadn't been paying people.'
This claim was backed up in the recent lawsuit when the Benson children questioned her business credibility, arguing that her businesses have been sued 'multiple times'.
'Gayle has never owned, operated or managed a substantial business enterprise,' the lawsuit says.
The Daily Mail Online has also learned that Gayle ended up in court in New Orleans as a civil defendant 18 times from 1987 to 2000, facing lawsuits that were mostly related to her career in interior design.
According to court records Gayle, whose last name was listed as Bird, frequently battled allegations that she did not pay off bills in time or was in breach of contract.
Most of the sums involved were about $5,000 or less and often involved unpaid debts for goods and services ordered.
Once, after a trial, Gayle Bird Interiors Ltd had a judgment rendered against it to pay $1,689.67 in 1992.
Another claim involved an advertisement Gayle Bird Interiors Ltd took out in a magazine.
The company requested that the ad continue to run over a certain period but at some point the firm simply stopped paying for it, said the plaintiff, John Demers.
When Demers confronted Gayle about the non-payment she persuaded him to keep running the ad as a personal favor, promising to eventually pay him back.
But Demers said she then stopped returning calls so he sued and received a settlement.
Pride: Grace Benson went into business as an interior decorator and has since displayed her work in the home in New Orleans she shared with her husband Tom
Side-by-side: The inseparable couple married in 2004 after a courtship of only a few months
Lavish: The multi-million New Orleans home which Grace Benson shares with her husband Tom and which she has been responsible for decorating. She had a debt-strewn business career as an interior decorator
In 1988 Gayle was arrested on suspicion of theft after allegedly refusing to return an expensive desk she had received from a customer for renovation.
She was never prosecuted and subsequently launched her own lawsuit over the arrest in federal court.
The Benson family believe Gayle is unqualified and too 'inexperienced' to take over the Saints and Pelicans.
And even her own family questions her capabilities. The close family source, speaking exclusively to Daily Mail Online, said Gayle changed significantly after marrying Benson.
They say she quickly began enjoying 'the finer things in life'and fell out with her own family.
Gayle had moved to Rockport, Texas, to live with Benson not long after they first got together in 2004.
A year later Hurricane Katrina was bearing down on New Orleans where her parents lived and Gayle brought them over to Texas to sit the storm out.
The source said: 'Gayle wanted her parents at Tom's house in Rockport which made sense because it wasn't safe in New Orleans with Katrina.
'But after the storm blew through she decided they should stay in Texas permanently. Tom is a family man, he loved having them around, they were a similar age to him and he wanted them there.
'Gayle wanted to keep Tom happy so she told her sister Brenda she wanted mom and dad to stay.
Family: The LaJaunie family, from left Gayle, Brenda and Wayne, with their parents Marie and Francis.
Renewal: Glenda and Tom Benson returned to the Catholic cathedral in New Orleans last year to renew their marriage vows on their tenth wedding anniversary, at a ceremony packed with family and friends
Reunion: As well as renewing their vows, Gayle and Tom Benson were revisiting where they first met when the Archbishop of New Orleans, Gregory Aymond, blessed their tenth wedding anniversary
'She came up with this plan to lie to her mother and she told her New Orleans wasn't safe and that their house was damaged.
'But Brenda refused to be part of it, she said her mom was crying and was desperate to come home to New Orleans, she'd lived there all her life. Her house wasn't damaged or flooded at all, it was fine.'
The source said it was Brenda's decision to take their mother back home which infuriated Gayle causing a major rift between the siblings.
'Gayle cut Brenda and her mother off,' the source said. 'Marie went back to New Orleans to live with her daughter and Gayle refused to speak to either of them. They had no communication for a year.'
Gayle's father Francis decided to stay in Rockport, but the two sides of the family continued to have little if any contact.
The source said that at the beginning of her relationship with Benson, Gayle had invited her family everywhere.
'Brenda and her husband Burton were very much part of Gayle and Tom's life, they went up on his private jet and spent time at his homes and on his big yacht,' the source said.
The couple was on Benson's multi-million dollar yacht when it was dedicated in Gayle's name as a surprise gift to her from Benson.
They said: 'The yacht was called 'Grace Marie' after Tom's second wife and because Gayle's middle name was also Marie they only had to change the first part which raised a laugh.
'But the money and prestige soon went to Gayle's head and she became more and more controlling over her family and began to look down her nose at them.
'There was one time when Gayle gave her mother table etiquette lessons before they attended a dinner, she showed her which fork to use and how to eat, Marie was really upset by it, it was really demeaning.'
The feud escalated after Gayle's mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and spent the final year of her life living at a nursing home in New Orleans.
Mrs LaJaunie lived at the Chateau Living Center in Kenner on the outskirts of New Orleans.
Prominent: Rita Benson LeBlanc is a figure on the social scene in New Orleans and modeled on catwalk show highlighting America's Scottish connections in New York in 2012
Partnership: Until recently Rita Benson LeBlanc was vice-president of the New Orleans Saints and credited for agreeing naming rights to the Superbowl with Mercedes Benz, whose 125th anniversary she marked in 2011
The assisted-living facility offers residential care for $165 a day for semi-private rooms, meaning she had to share with another person.
Her daughter Brenda, 64, and her husband Burton Ernst,63, sent her there because it was nearby and she qualified for state assistance through Medicare.
The source said: 'The home was fine, but because Brenda and Burton couldn't afford anything better Marie had to share a room with someone else which for an 85-year-old woman with Alzheimer's isn't very dignified.
'Brenda reached out to Gayle to ask for help but she refused. She was still angry with her.
'It's upsetting when her daughter has access to millions of dollars but refuses to pay anything towards her own mother's care.
'A private room with your own nursing staff was an extra $3500 a month, Gayle spends that much on a pair of shoes.'
Mrs LaJaunie died in 2010 aged 85.
'Marie had a good life but it upset her that her daughter Gayle behaved the way she did,' the family source said.
'Gayle went to see her mother at the home a few times but she never stayed long, she would walk in and walk out again.
'She could see how her mom was living but never offered to pay for a more comfortable place.'
Ironically, Gayle's husband owns a nursing home elsewhere in the city.
Chateau Living Center yesterday refused to confirm or deny that Marie LaJaunie was in there care before she died.
Gayle's apparent disdain for her sister continued when she refused to even contribute to the cost of their mother's funeral.
The source said: 'Brenda arranged the funeral and called Gayle. She asked if she would pay one-third of the costs along with her and their brother Wayne.
'But Gayle was angry after learning that Brenda was being left their parent's home in their father's will.
'Gayle told Brenda she has plenty of money and to take it from the house when their father dies.
'Brenda was really upset, she wasn't asking for a lot and the house was only worth $150,000 and still had payments to make on it.'
But the source said Gayle felt a warped sense of entitlement over her parent's property despite marrying in to extreme wealth.
Three months after Gayle's mother died, her father passed away in July, 2010, also aged 85.
Allegations: Tom Benson's family claim that his third wife, Gayle, has estranged him from his children and grandchildren and he is now confused and thinks the president is Ronald Reagan
The family source says Gayle's snobbery shone through when she contributed to an obituary for her father which was published in his memory in the local San Antonio press.
Gayle described her father's occupation as a 'supervisor' at Time Saver Food Store Company.
But the family source said: 'Francis was never a supervisor, he was always a maintenance man, he never had a management role.
'But Gayle always wants people to think she is from better stock. She refused to accept her humble background.'
With her parents gone Gayle threw herself into helping Benson with his business.
She was rarely seen away from his side at NFL and NBA games and she became heavily involved and widely praised for her philanthropy work alongside Benson.
She has even been credited for coming up with the idea to approach Mercedes-Benz about the long-dormant quest to sell the naming rights to the Superdome.
She has come a long way since meeting Benson for the first time at St. Louis Cathedral in October, 2004.
Even then, Gayle admitted to the Times Picayune, she had money on her mind.
'I didn't know who he was. When I was told he owned the Saints, I was busy raising funds to repair the cathedral's roof, and I thought wouldn't it be nice if he made a $10,000 donation.'
The couple recently celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary by renewing their vows at the same church surrounded by 1,000 family and friends.
Gayle wore a Verg Wang dress that she said 'was just perfect for the evening'.
Fortune: The Superdome in New Orelans is the centerpiece in Tom Benson's fortune. He has not banned his family from entering it and handed future control to his wife
After the ceremony, a reception was held at the New Orleans Museum of Art, a harpist, two opera singers and members of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra played.
The vow renewal was carefully planned and TV news crews were invited to capture the event.
Insiders say Gayle is desperate to portray the correct public image believing it key to her personal success.
A source close to the LeBlanc family, told Daily Mail Online: 'It was all part of her secret bid to become 'Queen of New Orleans'.
By her own admission Gayle changes her clothes at least three times a day 'for all of the different places I'm going', she said in an interview with New Orleans Living magazine in September, 2013.
'It sounds glamorous, but it's a lot of work,' she said.
That same year Gayle was named one of the Top Five Best Dressed Ladies in Louisiana – a title she reveled in.
Every item in her vast walk-in wardrobe at the couple's luxury home on New Orlean's upmarket Audubon Place is a designer brand and Gayle has a particular penchant for Chanel.
Basketball too: The Pelicans play at the New Orelans arena, usually watched by Tom and Gayle Benson
'I know it'll sound like a cliche, but it's been a dream,' Gayle told the Times-Picayune in 2009, referring to her life with Benson.
Fox 8, a news outlet owned by her husband, once described Gayle as the 'First Lady of Louisiana sports'.
But until now, she was not listed as owner or future owner of the teams.
The billionaire 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.
It is believed the agreed pay out is $30million should Benson die and $2million should they divorce.
But all that appears to be changing and Benson is ready to give her the world.
The lawsuit, however, says Gayle has 'manipulated' Benson in to relinquishing his fortune.
She has already sealed ownership of the GMB (Gayle Marie Benson) Racing Stables as well as other smaller ventures.
The lawsuit claims Gayle systematically turned Benson against his family, isolating him from contact with his children and grandchildren, as well as from his friends and trusted business associates.
The younger Bensons also claim Gayle screened Benson's phone calls, mail, and email manipulating all his business decisions.
It is alleged she has replaced his household staff, the staff on his yacht and his medical team with her own people.
She is also accused of disrupting the family's traditional gatherings for Thanksgiving and Christmas last year and removing all photos of Benson's family from his home.
Benson's ill-health, the lawsuit claims, has led to him being hospitalized several times in recent months.
The suit claims Benson is not eating properly, surviving on a diet of ice cream and candy.
Witnesses say they have seen Gayle cutting Benson's food in to small pieces for him and acting the role of nurse for her frail husband on many occasions.
The source told Daily Mail Online: 'Tom has always been a hard man, everyone walks on egg shells when they are around him so there's always been personality clashes between him and Rita.
'But he is Rita's grandfather and she has always had a loving relationship with him, she affectionately called him Pawpaw.
'Her, her brother and their mom Renee were really upset at Christmas when they couldn't see him, they believe Gayle was behind keeping them away.
'She has got in to his mind and poisoned him against his family.
'What shocks them most is that there has been no significant event that led up to this, nothing. It just isn't Tom's MO. He's a very direct man, he was never shy at confronting people so why would he send an email making these sorts of big decisions.
'Now Rita, Ryan and their mother Renee's main concern is Tom's health and well-being. Rita is the family protector and knows this is out of character for her grandfather.
'He has always been loving and caring so it hurts when things like this happen.'
Since the feud erupted lawyers for both sides have been in overdrive.
In the latest step in a court battle for control of the Saints and the Pelicans, Benson's heirs last week renewed their request to have the teams' owner undergo a mental evaluation.
In a legal filing also submitted Wednesday to the New Orleans Civil District Court by Benson's counsel, it states Benson made the decision 'after years of concern and misgivings about (Renee's, Rita's and Ryan's) abilities to completely participate in and... take over the management of his businesses.'
Benson also vigorously disputes his health is deteriorating, saying at a Pelicans game on Wednesday night: 'There's nothing wrong with me. I've been at the office every day and putting in a full day's work. I feel fine.'
Benson's lawyer Phillip Wittmann said the claims from the rival camp were 'false' and that it was another attempt to 'humiliate' and 'harass' the Bensons.
He added: 'No further response is necessary.'
There will, however, be a response in court, suggesting that at 87, Benson will not be relaxing with his family for a long time yet.
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