Saints deny racism allegations made by employee

New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson sits on the sideline before an NFL game against the Green Bay Packers. (Bill Haber/AP)

NEW ORLEANS — The New Orleans Saints have denied allegations of racism and retribution in a federal lawsuit filed by a fired longtime personal assistant to club owner Tom Benson.

The lawsuit, filed in November by Rodney Henry, initially centred on allegations that the Saints failed to properly pay Henry for his hours worked.

Henry amended the lawsuit Tuesday, accusing Benson’s wife, Gayle, of using the word "black," while slandering him. Henry also alleges the Saints fired him because of his testimony in another lawsuit filed by Tom Benson’s estranged heirs, who’ve contested a 2015 succession plan leaving Gayle Benson in charge of the Saints and NBA’s Pelicans, which Benson also owns.

"We deny any wrongdoing by anyone within the organization with respect to Mr. Henry’s employment," Saints spokesman Greg Bensel said Wednesday in a written statement. "Just like any other employer, our organization sometimes has to make difficult decisions that are in the best interest of the company.

"Unfortunately, when those decisions are made, as is the case here, employees often take it personally and accuse their employers of wrongdoing in an effort to justify -- in their own minds -- why their employment was terminated," the statement continued.

Henry, who has spent about 25 years as Benson's personal assistant, worked on salary at $50,000 annually at the time he was fired, according to his lawsuit. Henry's lawsuit said the Saints violated federal labour law because Henry was not management and was often expected to work more than eight hours in a day and more than 40 hours a week.

In addition to accompanying Tom Benson on Saints road games, Henry's assignments ranged from bringing dinner to the Bensons at night picking up king cakes at dawn for personal delivery throughout the city during Mardi Gras, the lawsuit said.

The new allegations state that Gayle Benson, who married Tom Benson more than a decade ago, did a variety of things to harass and discriminate against Henry in recent years, such as attempting to relegate him to a substandard room with child-size bunk beds and no air conditioning when the Saints were holding training camp at the luxury Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia in 2014. The lawsuit alleges that when Henry received permission from Tom Benson to move to a larger room, Gayle Benson first protested and later told Henry she hated him.

The lawsuit also alleged that Henry overheard Gayle Benson telling another Saints official that she hated Henry and would find a way to get rid of him.

Henry states that Gayle Benson told him to meet with Saints lawyers before taking a deposition in the lawsuit filed by Tom Benson's estranged heirs challenging the team owner's mental competency. Henry said he did not want to meet with lawyers from either side before his deposition, after which he was increasingly isolated from Tom Benson and his role in the organization diminished.

As soon as state civil Judge Kern Reese ruled Benson competent, the Saints told Henry his job was being eliminated.

"The real reason for Mr. Henry's termination was the unlawful discrimination, harassment and retaliation orchestrated by Mrs. Benson and carried out by the Saints," Henry's lawsuit said. "To add insult to the injury ultimately perpetrated against Mr. Henry, Mrs. Benson and the Saints attempted to use Mr. Henry as a pawn in the (mental competency trial) by maintaining his employment, such as it was in light of their ongoing discrimination, until he provided testimony in the lawsuit. As soon as Judge Reese issued his decision in the Benson family matter, Mrs. Benson and the Saints continued their unlawful discriminatory and retaliatory conduct by abruptly terminating Mr. Henry's employment."

Bensel's statement on Wednesday promised that the Benson's would vigorously defend themselves against Henry's "baseless" allegations.

"Both Tom and Gayle Benson are extremely hurt by Mr. Henry's filing (Tuesday) in federal court in New Orleans and the ridiculous accusations made," the Saints' statement said, noting that the lawsuit persisted even after dismissal of the matter by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

"The Bensons considered Mr. Henry to be a part of their family, providing for him and his children for some 20 years," the Saints' statement said. "They are both very disappointed that he has decided to assert these accusations of harassment and discrimination."