Tom Benson ordered to face questioning from daughter’s lawyers in Texas trust fund battle

Despite his objections, Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson will have to submit to questioning by his daughter’s lawyers in the Texas court battle over control of a family trust fund, a judge said Tuesday.

Attorneys for Benson had argued that a deposition by the billionaire was unnecessary, citing a wealth of previous testimony from witnesses during the multifaceted legal feud between Benson and his daughter, Renee Benson, as well as her children. But the daughter’s attorneys argued that her 88-year-old father should have to sit for questions from them after he avoided the witness stand at preliminary proceedings in the Texas case as well as during a mental competency trial last year in New Orleans.

The only direct questioning Benson has faced so far came during a private meeting with Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese, who ruled in Benson’s favor in the mental competency case. Benson’s estranged relatives have appealed that ruling, and oral arguments before an appeals panel are scheduled for Jan. 21.

On Tuesday, Texas Probate Court Judge Tom Rickhoff ruled that attorneys for Benson and his daughter have until 5 p.m. Friday to agree on a time and place for the deposition. If an agreement can’t be reached, his deposition will begin at noon Jan. 21 at the San Antonio courthouse where Rickhoff presides.

Benson’s lead attorney, Phil Wittmann, said his office already was in touch Tuesday with Renee Benson’s lawyers to comply with Rickhoff’s ruling.

Renee Benson sued for control of the trust fund — which was established by her late mother, Shirley Benson — at about the time her father decided to cut her and her children out of the family business empire.

The trust includes shares in a family-owned bank as well as car dealerships and real estate. It does not have any of the nonvoting shares in Benson’s sports teams that are involved in a separate lawsuit pending in federal court in New Orleans.

Rickhoff has assigned two receivers to temporarily administer the trust until the case is resolved. Last month, Benson offered to voluntarily step down as overseer of the trust as long as a neutral party is assigned to administer it.

The case is set for trial Feb. 1 if the two sides can’t settle the disagreement through mediation.

Wittmann said mediation talks were held in San Antonio on Saturday. He would not comment on how they went out of respect for instructions from Rickhoff to keep the mediation private, he said.

Renee Benson’s lead Texas attorney, Bennett Stahl, said Tuesday’s ruling will let him ask Benson “important questions and hear the answers in his own words.”

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