COLUMBIA, South Carolina — A freelance journalist from Newberry has sued South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, saying he has intentionally withheld public records she requested in the fight over entertainer James Brown’s estate.
Sue Summer’s lawyers sued Wilson last month, saying he is violating South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act by not releasing the diary of the woman who said she was Brown’s wife when he died in 2006 and the contract between two private law firms handling the lawsuit over a settlement a former attorney general brokered over the soul singer’s estate.
Brown’s death set off a fight over his will that has lingered for more than six years. The settlement arranged by former Attorney General Henry McMaster remains in limbo after two trustees who were overseeing the estate before a judge removed them sued. The case remains before the South Carolina Supreme Court.
Summer began investigating the struggle over Brown’s estate in 2011. She clashed with Wilson’s office in the fall after a lawyer associated with the case issued a subpoena against her, asking her to turn over her notes, emails, audio recordings and any other information relating to more than a dozen people involved in Brown’s will. Summer vowed to fight the order, which was dropped after several stories were written about the request.
Summer’s lawsuit includes three letters she wrote in January, March and June of 2011 requesting the records involved with McMaster’s decision to set up the I Feel Good Trust, named after one of Brown’s biggest hits. The trust’s goal is to pay for scholarships for children who live around Brown’s home, just over the Savannah River in Aiken County.
“After all, there are perhaps thousands of young people for whom the James Brown ‘I Feel Good’ Trust might open educational opportunities — and that alone makes these questions of great public importance,” Summer wrote in a June letter requesting some of the documents.
Wilson’s office said regular public record laws don’t apply in this case because the state is being sued.
“Everything that they have asked for, either we do not have it, or it does not exist, or we have already turned it over if we do possess it, or it is the subject of a court order, which we are not allowed to turn over,” Wilson said.
Wilson said he has been a strong advocate for releasing as much information to the public as possible. He points out he had his lawyers, without being asked, back a Charleston radio host who sued the South Carolina Association of School Administrators, saying the organization should have to release records because it takes public money.
Summer said she is requesting the diary of Tomi Rae Hynie, who claimed to Brown’s wife when the singer died, because she said sources have told her Hynie wrote in it that she isn’t sure the couple was legally married.
The former backup singer for Brown fought with the estate for years after the singer’s lawyers said their marriage was annulled because she was still married to another man when she and Brown exchanged vows. The settlement approved after the trustees were booted included an agreement that Brown and Hynie’s marriage was legitimate.
Summer said she also thinks the documents could dispute McMaster’s announcement that a professional money manager who took over Brown’s estate managed to pay off more than $20 million the singer borrowed for a European comeback tour. Summer said her reporting has suggested those numbers are inflated and she swore to her sources she would protect them if they talked to her.
Summer is asking Wilson’s office to release the documents and to pay her legal fees. In the future, she also wants Wilson’s office to follow the advice it gives to local governments on Freedom of Information Act matters.
“When in doubt, release the document.”
Wilson said he still believes in that statement, but the orders of a judge and the rules in a lawsuit sometimes supersede that.
Freelance reporter covering James Brown estate suit files FOI lawsuit against attorney general
Jeffrey Collins/Associated Press
January 4, 2013