Tom Benson’s grandson Ryan LeBlanc says mental competency lawsuit is effort to ‘put the family back together’

Ryan LeBlanc has heard the talk alleging that he, his mother and sister are pushing a mental competency lawsuit against the family patriarch, Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson, because they want to wrest away Benson’s $2 billion business empire after he cut them off more than a year ago.

But there’s no question LeBlanc is financially secure after working for his grandfather’s companies and benefiting from some family trusts. He also has a new job since the legal dispute erupted, pitting family members against one another.

The reason he’s fighting, he says, is that he doesn’t accept that Benson never wants to speak to him again, not after spending more than three decades as an active participant in his grandson’s life.

“We just want to put the family back together,” LeBlanc said during a recent interview. “We just want to spend time with our grandfather again.”

Married with two children, the 35-year-old LeBlanc is one of the lesser-known members of the Benson clan, the grandchild who spent most of his career working with the family’s hunting ranch and car dealerships in Texas, while his sister, Rita, took on a higher-profile role with the professional sports teams in New Orleans.

Yet, he said, he was by his grandfather’s side as much as anyone.

LeBlanc was 5 when Benson bought the Saints, so his childhood was full of jaunts down to the Superdome turf to second-line with his grandfather, who celebrated team victories with the famous “Benson boogie.”

Benson also would attend LeBlanc’s junior high football games in Texas, cheering on his grandson’s team as passionately as he did the Saints, LeBlanc recalled.

Holidays were largely spent hunting on the family ranch outside San Antonio, trips that were attended by Benson relatives and associates. LeBlanc remembers he often would get a prized spot on the ride out to the hunt: the front seat next to his grandfather.

When it was time to start working with the family businesses, LeBlanc said, he began at the bottom, washing cars and mowing the grass outside a dealership run by one of his grandfather’s employees.

His responsibilities naturally grew as he got older. In his early 20s, he was entrusted with managing the family ranch, and he oversaw the operations of some Texas car dealerships.

He said one thing remained constant, though: his proximity to his granddad.

When the twice-widowed Benson married his third wife, Gayle, in 2004, LeBlanc was a groomsman.

A year later, after Hurricane Katrina forced the Saints to play “home” games in San Antonio and Baton Rouge, fans who were worried Benson would permanently move the franchise hurled obscenities at him as he left Tiger Stadium following a loss to the Dolphins.

LeBlanc marched alongside Benson during the encounter and, at one point, tried to block a television cameraman from recording the tense moment.

It was after a hunting trip in late 2014 that LeBlanc read the typed letter informing him that he, Rita and their mother, Renee, were forbidden from speaking to Benson or showing up at any of his businesses ever again. The missive accused the so-called “three R’s” of treating Gayle rudely, and it preceded an announcement that Benson wanted to leave control of his business empire after his death to his wife and not his daughter or grandchildren, as had long been the plan.

The trio then filed a New Orleans civil court lawsuit alleging that the 88-year-old billionaire had been manipulated by Gayle and other interlopers into making that decision while in a deteriorating mental and physical state. As other litigation broke out, some of which is still pending, Benson’s attorneys argued that all his decisions were his alone and had been arrived at slowly and deliberately.

Despite acknowledging that it was evident Benson had sustained “mild cognitive impairment,” Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese last year ruled the Saints owner was legally competent to handle his affairs. Ryan, Rita and Renee appealed the ruling and await the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal’s decision.

LeBlanc doesn’t dispute that he, his sister and their mother have their naysayers. But no matter what others may say, he maintains his primary hope is to knock down anything preventing him from again bringing his 7-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son around one of the most important men in his life.

“They ask about it all the time. ... They miss their ‘Paw Paw’ Benson,” said LeBlanc, who for months now has been selling agricultural equipment and hunting gear for a San Antonio-area wildlife supply manufacturer while also managing the company owner’s hunting ranches.

LeBlanc said he doesn’t lie to his children about when things might get back to normal: He isn’t sure but hopes it’s soon.

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