Media sues for access in Saints, Pelicans ownership dispute

New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson and his wife, Gayle. AP photo
New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson and his wife, Gayle.
AP photo

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Several media outlets are suing for public access to the courtroom during next week’s trial involving Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson and his estranged heirs.

In an order last week, Judge Kern Reese said he would bar the public from attending the civil trial in New Orleans because testimony would involve sensitive health and financial information.

Benson’s daughter, Renee, and her children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, have alleged that their patriarch was not of sound mind when he cut them out of ownership roles with the pro teams. Benson announced in January that he intends for his third wife, Gayle, whom he married in 2004, to eventually inherit full control of the NFL and NBA clubs, as well as other business interests.

Tom Benson’s lawyers have asked that proceedings be closed, while the spurned heirs want as much as possible open to public scrutiny.

The media companies suing for public access are New Orleans Hearst Television, Hearst Newspapers, Gannett and ESPN.

Their motion argues that Reese’s “blanket closing of trial and sealing of an entire court record” violates the constitutions of both Louisiana and United States.

“The privacy interests of Mr. Benson do not outweigh the public interest in the right to know what is happening in the public courts in a case of such significance,” the motion states.

The motion further points out that the Saints and Pelicans have benefited from hundreds of millions of dollars in public support in the form of subsidies, tax breaks, upgrades to the state-owned football and basketball stadiums, and lease terms more favorable to Benson than would be typically found in the free market.

“The millions of dollars expended on these sports franchises — on the stadium and the arena, on traffic control, on construction and infrastructure upgrades for related major professional sports events — alone justify public concern in this matter,” the motion said.

“Moreover, especially since Hurricane Katrina and the resulting flooding of New Orleans and surrounding parishes, the psychological impact of Mr. Benson’s sports teams on the public has been considerable. Who will manage and control these enterprises is of tremendous public interest.”