Renee Benson suddenly faces uncertain future (TX)

A few months ago, Renee Benson was poised to someday become an NFL owner, an NBA owner, the controlling owner of a San Antonio bank and an auto dealership chain, plus real estate and a mountain of cash.

Now, everything is uncertain. Her once secure inheritance is being fought over in courts in two states. Family relations have worsened even beyond the dysfunctional stage. And she faces a real possibility of never seeing her 87-year-old father again.

And she says, under oath, that she doesn’t know why.

Tom Benson’s lawyers, moreover, did not call the billionaire to the courtroom stand where he could be forced to explain why he no longer wants to see his child and grandchildren or for them to have any future role in his companies. The companies include the New Orleans Saints and the New Orleans Pelicans.

Renee Benson’s story has emerged in court documents and her testimony in the ongoing Bexar County probate court fight over control of the estate her late mother set up for her and her children.

Renee Benson, born in January 1956, was the second of three children adopted by Tom and his first wife, Shirley Benson. Tom and Shirley were married 35 years until she died in 1980. They could not have children, so they adopted.

When the matter of Renee Benson’s adoption came up during the probate hearing, Bexar County Probate Judge Tom Rickhoff reminded lawyers on both sides that adopted children have the same legal standing as natural-born children.

Renee Benson’s older brother, Robert Benson, died at age 37 of lung cancer. Her younger sister, Jeanne Marie “Tootsie” Benson, died at age 31 after a long illness. That left Renee Benson as the only child for Tom Benson, who has remarried twice.

Renee said she remembers a happy childhood.

Both Tom and Shirley Benson loved to dance.

“Dad was a lot of fun” when she was little, Renee Benson testified. “He loved to dance. I was on his arm dancing around; (he was) throwing me up and around.”

Renee Benson recalled carefree family summers at the 2,300-acre Benson Farm & Ranch in the Hill Country near Johnson City. Tom Benson still commuted to his auto dealerships in San Antonio, wearing a coat and tie every day, even in the summers.

After graduating from San Antonio’s Ursuline Academy, Renee Benson moved to Louisiana for about three years. She attended Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana, but did not graduate.

After her mother died in 1980 of lupus, the Shirley L. Benson Testamentary Trust was established, with Tom Benson as trustee and Renee Benson as a beneficiary.

In 1984, Renee Benson started receiving a $10,000 check every month from the trust and its earnings.

From 1975 to 1996, Renee Benson was married to Russell LeBlanc. They have two children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc. Renee Benson now is married to an airline pilot, John Benham. Her primary residence since returning to Texas has been in Blanco.

Along the way, Renee Benson started at least two businesses. One was Uptown Blanco Arts & Entertainment LLC, which buys historic buildings in Blanco, then refurbishes and leases them. One of the buildings is a dance hall.

Uptown Blanco has not been profitable as a whole, Renee Benson testified, but might be in the future when properties are sold. Uptown Blanco was aimed more at being a community service than a moneymaker, she told the court.

Nineteen years ago, she also started Renson Enterprises LLC, which provided back-office management services to Tom Benson’s dealerships, such as human resources and computer systems, to save money on shared operations at each dealership.

At one time, Tom Benson held more than 35 car dealerships in Texas and Louisiana, but after acquiring the New Orleans Saints in 1985, Benson increasingly spent more time at the sports franchise and began selling many of his car dealerships. Tom Benson, under a holding company called Bensco Texas, now owns three San Antonio car dealerships. Bensco Louisiana holds two dealerships.

In Texas, Bensco paid a base fee of $75,000 a month to Renson. Tom Benson stopped the payments in January. One of Renee Benson’s lawyers, Bennett Stahl, said in court that Renson no longer exists.

The Shirley Benson trust owns nearly half of Bensco Texas. The trust also owns 97 percent of Lone Star Capital Bank, which Tom Benson formed in 2003 by buying and merging two banks.

After Shirley Benson died, Tom married his second wife, Grace, who died in 2003.

Asked about her relationship with Grace, Renee Benson said: “It varied. At first, she wanted no one around. We had some common interests, photography and music, but we only saw my father once a month when they came to Rockport. But she allowed my father to have quality time with us.”

Benson then married his third wife, Gayle of New Orleans, in 2004.

After a short period, her access to her father began to diminish, Renee Benson said.

“If I wanted to call him, I had to call Gayle’s cellphone,” she said. “We all adjusted. In 2012, she refused to answer my calls. She was available. She just wasn’t taking my calls.”

Renee Benson gave her father simple cellphones called Jitterbugs, which he soon lost. “Or someone did. I don’t know. I replaced them twice.”

In addition, she almost never could visit her father alone.

“She (Gayle) was always right there,” she testified.

The last time she saw Tom Benson was Dec. 2 when she and her husband, plus longtime banking associate R. Tom Roddy, traveled to New Orleans.

They found Tom Benson in his pajamas, unshaven at 11:30 a.m. and unable to feed his lunch to himself. He’d had seven knee operations in seven months. The visit ended abruptly after Tom Benson took a call that Renee Benson testified was from Gayle Benson.

Asked during the hearing why they didn’t help Tom Benson eat his lunch, Renee Benson said that would have insulted him.

Renee Benson almost lost her patience during the probate court hearing when Tom Benson’s lawyers asked her why she was urging him to return to his office despite the numerous surgeries.

“You have to understand this about my dad,” she said in an outburst. “He has no hobbies.”

Tom Benson is happiest when he at his office working, she explained.

Roddy said he was accustomed to see disagreements in the Benson family. In testimony, he said: “Their relationship has always been close. They fight, absolutely, and then they go to lunch.”

Questions from Tom Benson’s legal team to Renee Benson revealed what the lawyers described as an ugly incident in Benson’s Mercedes-Benz Superdome suite during halftime of a Saints football game last fall.

Rita LeBlanc, who worked for the Saints organization from 2001 until she was fired recently, confronted Gayle Benson, begging her to let Renee Benson see her father. Did Rita, the lawyers asked Renee Benson, use profanity at that time? Renee Benson deflected the question, saying she wasn’t there.

At one point in the past couple of months, Tom Benson told a Mercedes-Benz manager, “My daughter has done something I’m upset about,” the manager testified.

On Dec. 27, Renee Benson and her children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, were stunned when they received an emailed letter signed by Tom Benson. It said, in part: “I want no further contact with any of you.”

Longtime San Antonio lawyer and adviser to Tom Benson, Stanley Rosenberg, testified he wrote the letter over the Christmas weekend, using Tom Benson’s words as best he could. The billionaire reviewed the letter before it was sent, Rosenberg said.

On Thursday, both sides rested their cases in the San Antonio portion of the legal dispute, expecting a ruling from Probate Judge Rickhoff for one side or another.

Instead, Rickhoff decided to place the Shirley Benson trust, potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars, into a receivership controlled by two outside lawyers — former Mayor Phil Hardberger and Art Bayern.

The action effectively removes Tom Benson as the trustee for the time being — but it also keeps Renee Benson from obtaining control of the trust.

A hearing on the receivership still has to be held in Rickhoff’s court; it’s set for Monday.

As for the New Orleans legal battle, a hearing is scheduled for Tuesday on the lawsuit in which Renee Benson and Rita and Ryan LeBlanc are trying to stop Tom Benson from making Gayle Benson the heir to his Louisiana properties, including the Saints, the Pelicans, an office tower, a television station and two auto dealerships.

They claim in the Louisiana lawsuit that Tom Benson no longer has the capacity to make estate decisions.

Meanwhile, Renee Benson remains mystified by her father’s anger. He’s never told her he was upset with her, she pointed out while on the stand in San Antonio.

“I’ve heard from other people he was mad at me,” she told the court. “Why?”

Attribution:

Renee Benson suddenly faces uncertain future
David Hendricks
February 6, 2015
San Antonio Express-News
http://www.expressnews.com/business/local/article/Renee-Benson-suddenly-faces-uncertain-future-6067600.php

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