Tom Benson family feud: New keeper of trusts holding Saints, Pelicans steps in (TX/LA)

In the ongoing family struggle over Tom Benson’s fortune, a new attorney is now overseeing the trusts holding non-voting shares in the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans franchises – interests in the teams that Benson wants to take back, according to court records.

Benson, controlling owner of the sports franchises, filed a lawsuit in federal court in New Orleans on March 11 to remove all stock in the teams from trust funds he set up for his daughter, Renee Benson, and grandchildren Rita and Ryan LeBlanc – part of the patriarch’s plan to cut-off his three heirs.

The lawsuit was filed against the original trustee, San Antonio lawyer Bobby Rosenthal, who put a hold on Tom Benson’s attempt to transfer the assets.

Court records show that last month, Rosenthal gave up some of that authority. On Mach 19, Rosenthal named San Antonio lawyer Mary Rowe as his successor to oversee a group of trusts Benson created in 2012, as allowed under the terms of the trusts.

Rosenthal then resigned his post on March 25, leaving Rowe to take over.

Rosenthal is still trustee over other trusts created in 2009 that hold interests in the Saints and other property, according to court records.

Rowe and Rosenthal could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday (April 30).

As a new trustee, Rowe is now also a defendant in Tom Benson’s lawsuit over the trusts. U.S. District Judge Jane Triche Milazzo granted a motion by Benson to add Rowe as a defendant earlier this week.

Rowe is a partner with the Kreager Law Firm in San Antonio. According to a biography on the firm’s website, Rowe grew up on a farm in Blanco County, Texas, where Rita and Ryan LeBlanc spent their childhoods at a family ranch near Johnson City.

Benson wants a judge to force trustees to let him take back stock in the teams and related assets in exchange for $556 million in promissory notes, real estate and $94 million in forgiven debt.

In January, Rosenthal said the transfer could not go through until the value of the assets being exchanged could be proved equivalent. Rosenthal is a partner at a San Antonio firm that includes Stanley Rosenberg, a longtime friend and adviser to Tom Benson.

A lawyer representing Renee Benson couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Thursday morning.

Paul Cordes, Tom Benson’s estate attorney, said Rosenthal’s resignation and Rowe’s apointment ”doesn’t change Mr. Benson’s right to do this swap of assets … it doesn’t affect his right to withdraw the assets.”

Cordes said the litigation will move forward. “We’re just dealing with a different person now,” Cordes said.

The 87-year-old billionaire has maintained all of the power over the Saints and Pelicans franchises by owning all of the voting shares and moving only non-voting shares into family trusts.

Benson owns 40 percent of the Saints, while his heirs’ trusts own 60 percent. The trusts own 95 percent of the Pelicans, with Benson owning only 5 percent — though his portion constitutes all the Pelicans’ voting shares.

In January, Benson announced he was leaving full ownership of the teams to his third wife, Gayle, rather than to Renee, Rita and Ryan. His jilted heirs then filed lawsuits in New Orleans and San Antonio, seeking to take control over the family wealth, including the teams.


Tom Benson family feud: New keeper of trusts holding Saints, Pelicans steps in
Katherine Sayre
April 30, 2015
The Times-Picayune

Additional coverage:

New person is overseeing some of the trusts containing Saints, Pelicans shares in Benson dispute
Ramon Antonio Vargas
April 30, 2015
The New Orleans Advocate

In the sprawling legal battle pitting NFL and NBA owner Tom Benson against his daughter and her children, a new person is overseeing some of the trusts containing non-voting shares of the Saints and Pelicans that are at the center of the dispute.

San Antonio lawyer Mary Rowe is the new trustee of a group of trusts Tom Benson created in 2012 that benefit his daughter, Renee; his granddaughter, Rita LeBlanc; and his grandson, Ryan LeBlanc, court records show.

Rowe took over those duties from Robert Rosenthal, also a lawyer from San Antonio, who still remains the steward of some trusts that Benson created in 2009 for the benefit of Renee, Rita and Ryan and that also hold non-voting shares of the Saints.

Rosenthal — who couldn’t be reached for comment — was sued in New Orleans’ federal court on March 10 by Benson, who had appointed him to oversee the various trusts.

Rowe now joins Rosenthal as a defendant in the suit filed by Benson, which is pending.

Unlike Rosenthal, Rowe is not a partner of San Antonio lawyer Stanley Rosenberg, a longtime adviser to Benson. Her biography states she has been with the Kreager Law Firm since September 2007 and that she grew up on a farm in Blanco County, Texas, where Rita and Ryan also grew up and where Renee has a business development.

Before Rowe entered the picture, Rosenthal rejected a proposal by Benson to pull Renee’s, Rita’s and Ryan’s shares in the Saints, Pelicans and other businesses in Louisiana and Texas out of the trusts in return for $449 million in secured promissory notes and the cancellation of $94.5 million worth of debt. The collateral for the notes included the sports franchises themselves.

Benson announced in January that he wanted to alter a plan that upon his death would have made Rita, Ryan and Renee his primary successors. Instead, the twice-widowed Benson said he wants his third wife — Gayle, whom he married in 2004 — to eventually inherit control of everything.

To completely cut Renee, Rita and Ryan off from having any role in his sports franchises, Benson would need to remove their shares of the Saints and Pelicans from the trust funds benefiting them, which were set up to protect them from paying estate taxes. But the law requires Benson to replace anything he takes out of the trusts with assets of equal value.

While Benson’s relatives responded in part by filing a civil lawsuit in New Orleans that questioned his mental fitness to shake up his business affairs so drastically, Rosenthal rejected the billionaire’s proposed asset swaps. He said it was not a fair exchange. In fact, Rosenthal has indicated in documents that he could not deem any offer a fair swap until Benson provided updated valuations of the teams and his other assets.

Lawyers for Benson have said those valuations are ongoing but are a lengthy process. They then sued Rosenthal, asking a judge to permit Benson to extract the Saints’ and Pelicans’ shares from the group of trusts set up for his relatives.

Rosenthal executed documents on March 19 appointing Rowe to succeed him as trustee of the group of trusts created in 2012. Six days later, Rosenthal resigned from that role, and Rowe signed documents accepting the appointment to succeed him. However, the change did not become publicly known at that time.

Benson’s lawyers filed a motion in federal court on April 24 requesting that Rowe also be made a defendant in the case. U.S. District Judge Jane Triche Milazzo granted the motion Wednesday.

Having made their way to various state and federal courthouses in New Orleans and Texas, essentially all of the fronts of the multifaceted Benson legal battle are unresolved.

That includes a lawsuit in Texas in which Renee asked a judge to remove her father as steward of a separate trust set up for her benefit that does not contain any shares of the Saints or Pelicans.

A Texas judge temporarily suspended Benson as trustee of that trust and appointed two other men to serve temporarily in that role. Benson has appealed.