The “Godfather of Soul” James Brown’s estate continues in a series of troubling actions that only further solidify the scenario in which the state of South Carolina’s involvement appears as a hijacking. The situation has reached a new level as Sue Summer, a freelance reporter for The Newberry Observer, has now been served with a far-reaching subpoena whose issuance and content strongly suggests an effort to silence her.
Summer has largely been the only reporter covering the complex series of legal proceedings and questionable actions regarding Brown’s estate. In fact, one of her recent articles picked up on the widely-read Wills, Trusts & Estates Prof Blog, generated these comments:
The troubling matter about this dispute is that many news sources do not seem to be concerned with the lack of government accountability in this matter, even though there could be a clear violation of estate and government abuse. What’s worse is that these news sources might be intentionally distancing themselves from the story. There are a few legal blogs and reporters who are still reporting on this story, including The Newberry Observer’s Sue Summer.
The case absolutely calls into play questions over Brown’s (or potentially any other South Carolinians’) property rights including the ability to determine one’s final distribution of assets. It includes an apparent breach of his heirs’/beneficiaries’ rights of inheritance. Other actions of South Carolina officials reflect government transparency and accountability issues being ignored while an abounding appearance of legal impropriety thrives.
And freedom of the press is now under serious assault as one reporter credibly covering the case faces a subpoena asking for a ridiculous and highly inappropriate range of information. Also worth noting is how this action against a private citizen is occurring via a taxpayer-funded office that has shirked its own legally-mandated open government responsibilities repeatedly throughout the course of this case.
Click below to see the subpoena. The final page details information sought.
The James Brown estate case includes disgruntled family members, wannabe heirs and/or disingenuous legal professionals, parties routinely involved with Involuntary Redistribution of Assets actions. Traditional media sources have widely reported on the wrangling of Brown’s heirs – the legitimate, the disinherited and the wannabe, but only Summer is reporting on the multi-layered legal industry machinations that commenced in the years following the singer’s December 2006 death and continue today.
Estate of Denial® commended Summer’s efforts in our Dead or alive – James Brown, Danny Tate show threats to property rights thrive column.
In 2000, Brown established the James Brown “I Feel Good” private foundation to provide scholarships for poor children in South Carolina and Georgia. Brown’s estate plan reportedly stated that upon his death, “the proceeds of his music empire, including royalties to more than 800 songs, would be rolled into his ‘I Feel Good’ Trust.” Attorneys Adele Pope and Robert Buchanan served from 2007 to 2009 as court-appointed fiduciaries of Brown’s estate and trust which includes the “I Feel Good” trust. During Pope’s tenure, Summer reported that Brown’s music empire – per all previous Brown fiduciaries – was valued at about $100 million less a $15 million dollar debt.
Summer further wrote how in late 2008 or early 2009 former South Carolina Attorney General (AG) Henry McMaster and Columbia CPA Russell Bauknight created the “Legacy Trust.” She quoted a Pope legal response describing the trust as “McMaster’s vehicle to take control of Brown’s assets and funnel $50 million from the needy and deserving students James Brown intended to benefit to claimed heirs Brown intentionally disinherited from his worldwide music empire.” AG McMaster appointed current trustee Russell Bauknight who serves at the pleasure of the attorney general. During this timeframe, the estate value was also revised to a reported $4.7 million at-death appraisal despite, per Pope, the estate generating $4 to 5 million a year in royalties alone prior to Brown’s death.
And though Brown’s will and trust included clauses excluding from distributions any parties that challenged his estate plan, McMaster ultimately negotiated a settlement deal giving away more than half of Brown’s music empire to those Brown specifically disinherited, including his former companion Tommie Rae Hynie and about half of his alleged children. Summer described Tommie Rae Hynie as follows:
After Brown’s death in 2006, Hynie claimed to be Brown’s wife and sued his estate for a share of his $100 million music empire. The two had exchanged vows in 2001, but Hynie was married to another man at the time. When Brown discovered her marriage, he sued Hynie for an annulment. The Aiken County case was settled when Hynie signed an agreement that she would never claim to be Brown’s common-law wife.
With this backdrop, it’s difficult to believe that Brown’s final wishes are being honored. It’s troubling that the state of South Carolina has been such a force in this action. Adele Pope appears to share such sentiments as she continues working to determine how private assets that were once part of a private foundation were then legally placed in an alleged public trust in violation of the asset owner’s clear intention? And if it’s a public trust, why can’t the public access information revealing its details?
Pope has used Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to attempt accessing copies of the trust and documentation regarding the $4.7 million appraisal. The office of current Attorney General Alan Wilson – the office that prosecutes FOIA violations – has resisted all efforts. Instead, Summer reports “Legacy” trustee Bauknight having “threatened Pope with legal action and sanctions if she continued to exercise her rights under the FOIA.”
This past spring Pope received a subpoena related to the diaries of Tommie Rae Hynie. Specifically, Summer wrote, Pope is being asked to “turn over all written communications related to the Hynie diaries, including any communications with this reporter, any ‘blogger, website or media outlet.’”
Summer’s recent subpoena suggests a pattern emerging as stonewalling and legal gamesmanship continue in other aspects of the case.
Per a recent story in the Columbia Free Times, Jay Bender, a University of South Carolina journalism professor and First Amendment lawyer, says the subpoena issued to Summer is “overbroad” and was further quoted saying, “In the context of recognizing reporter privilege in South Carolina, it’s entirely unsupportable.” Bill Rogers, South Carolina’s Press Association director, appears to concur calling the state’s shield law “very good.” Rogers additionally expressed how “it is a rare occurrence when a reporter can provide information not available from other sources” and termed such situations as “a test in our shield law.” Rogers said, “Reporters are just that — not arms of the government.”
Where this case will go is anyone’s guess. Meanwhile, as Wilson or any of his agents use authority derived from and financed by state of South Carolina taxpayers to take any action in any capacity of this case, the growing number of public policy implications will be analyzed. If the media continues “intentionally distancing themselves” as appears to be the case, perhaps taxpayer advocates will find interest in their state’s apparent government overreach, suspected abuse of taxpayer funds and the legal system as well as what appears to be obstruction of government transparency and freedom of the press issues.
Probate abuse is a lucrative part of an entrenched system deriving its power to act from a protectionist legal industry that often includes corrupt government officials and courts. Questionable probate actions with such strong state-sponsored involvement present serious danger that should alert the public regarding the safety of its own property – whether in South Carolina or anywhere else.
Lou Ann Anderson is an advocate working to create awareness regarding the Texas probate system and its surrounding culture. She is the Online Producer at www.EstateofDenial.com, a Policy Advisor with Americans for Prosperity – Texas and a Director of Women on the Wall. Lou Ann may be contacted at info@EstateofDenial.com.