South Carolina AG wants reporter’s subpoena withdrawn in James Brown estate case

As a growing number of media outlets took notice of a subpoena issued by the state of South Carolina against freelance reporter Sue Summer over her coverage of “Godfather of Soul” James Brown’s estate, Attorney General Alan Wilson has issued a statement announcing his cancellation of the order which, in the context of recent proceedings, suggested an effort to silence a reporter and influence press coverage of an action that increasingly appears as a state-sponsored hijacking of Brown’s assets.

Per The Associated Press (AP),

COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson has asked a lawyer representing his office to cancel a subpoena against a freelance reporter who is covering the office’s handling of the late soul singer James Brown’s estate.

Sue Summer was served in August with the legal document requiring her to turn over her notes, emails, audio recordings and any other information relating to more than a dozen people involved in the will for Brown, who died in December 2006. The subpoena was issued by Mark Gende, a private attorney who is doing legal work for Wilson’s office.

Also from the article:

A spokesman for Wilson said he made his decision Tuesday after questions from The Associated Press.

“The attorney general fully supports the shield law, therefore we disagree with the subpoena being issued and strongly suggested it be rescinded,” said Bryan Stirling, a spokesman for Wilson.

Instead of the estate being privately administered as per Brown’s clearly documented wishes, then Attorney General Henry McMaster stepped in after the singer’s 2006 death and negotiated a settlement giving away more than half of Brown’s music empire to parties Brown specifically disinherited – including about half of his alleged children and his former companion Tommie Rae Hynie, a woman who claimed to be Brown’s wife despite having been married to another man when the two exchanged vows in 2001.  Brown had become aware of her status and had the “marriage” annulled with Hynie signing an agreement to never claim marital status with Brown.  Nonetheless, Hynie was awarded a generous portion of Brown’s assets.  Today under Wilson, the state maintains control of Brown’s estate.

Summer recently characterized the subpoena to the Columbia Journalism Review as “the third attempt to make me go away.”

This latest subpoena comes after the Facebook page Summer made to document her reporting was taken down after she published a piece in March detailing seven ways Attorney General Alan Wilson allegedly violated the Freedom Of Information Act, she told CJR. (The page has since been reinstated.) In May, Summer received her first subpoena, from the lawyers of a woman called Tommie Rae Hynie, who claims she was married to James Brown at the time of his death. The subpoena specifically demanded all of Summer’s reporting on Hynie’s diary, which is seen as key to the case. The newest subpoena, issued on behalf of Brown’s children, was served on August 22, with a deadline of October 26.

Summer has largely been the only reporter covering the complex series of legal proceedings and questionable actions regarding Brown’s estate.  In a post published shortly before the subpoena’s issuance, the widely-read Wills, Trusts & Estates Prof Blog said this of the case:

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.

Wilson’s issuance and withdrawal of the subpoena are positive developments in helping draw attention to this case.  A recent column South Carolina AG’s hold on James Brown estate: doesn’t ‘feel good,’ seem right discussed four public policy areas upon which troubling issues in this case touch.

The freedom of the press issues are critical.  In light of the state of South Carolina’s stringent resistance to open government practices such as Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, government transparency and taxpayer accountability issues also abound.

With the state’s ongoing involvement in Brown’s estate, former trustee Adele Pope filed FOIA requests seeking to learn provisions of the new government-controlled “Legacy Trust” created in 2008 with Brown’s assets by McMaster. She also sought to determine why government-appointed trustees valued the estate at $4.7 million, an amount representing annual royalties alone, when all previous fiduciaries considered it worth around $100 million.  Neither copies of the trust nor an explanation of the valuation have ever been provided.

Gende, the attorney issuing and now withdrawing Summer’s subpoena is described by The Associated Press as “a private attorney who is doing legal work for Wilson’s office.”  A number of lawyers have surfaced in this case.  As Wilson’s office is publicly funded, taxpayers have every right to an explanation of if and why their hard-earned dollars are covering such expenses.

Cronyism in the courts and elsewhere seems in play.  The history of this case suggests a use of the legal system to mask misconduct.  It gives a strong appearance of politically-allied cronyism ensuring protectionism and continued enrichment of those involved.  In the Columbia Journalism Review article, Summer seems to concur:

When Summer was served with her second subpoena in August, she said that she felt she was missing a part of the story—why would the state make repeated efforts to discourage her from publicizing the case? She took a closer look at the attorney general Alan Wilson’s re-election campaign contributions from July (Wilson took over from McMaster as attorney general last year). Two coincidences caught her eye.

On the day of Summer’s subpoena hearing in May, Wilson—who is responsible for deciding the final distribution of the estate—received election campaign contributions from a law firm who have hired private practice lawyers to secure Tommie Rae Hynie a share. (Wilson did not respond to a request for comment.) Summer also discovered that one of Hynie’s two high-powered attorneys teaches law at the University of South Carolina where McMaster has worked as a fundraiser since finishing his AG term.

And lastly, let’s not forget the entire basis of this case:  James Brown’s property rights and his legitimate heirs’ and beneficiaries’ rights of inheritance.  James Brown had an estate plan which clearly detailed his wishes.  A government takeover of his estate was not part of the stated plan.  However, poor children in South Carolina and Georgia along with some of Brown’s own grandchildren were – and to date, it appears none have received funds directed for their benefit.

Brown’s rights to determine final distribution of assets are being posthumously denied while his legitimate heirs and beneficiaries are also being denied their rightful inheritance or other benefit of the estate.  Legal industry insiders and related government allies are the only parties seemingly deriving benefit from this action.

Brown named people to receive his assets – they haven’t.  He named people not to benefit from his estate – they have.  If a government can come in and functionally hijack James Brown’s estate, South Carolina residents should understand their property might be next.

It’s a positive development that Wilson has rescinded the subpoena.  That this case has been highlighted as far from over is equally positive and will hopefully bring Sue Summer company in her
reporting.  And James Brown.  He wanted his lifelong accumulation of assets to educate some of his grandchildren as well as other kids in both South Carolina and Georgia.  While that’s not happening, his estate is at least serving to educate the public as to what happens when government goes unwatched.

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.

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