At a May 29 status conference on the James Brown estate, senior assistant Attorney General (AG) C.H. “Sonny” Jones praised the service of current Brown trustee Russell Bauknight of Columbia, telling the Court that “his record speaks for itself.”
It is a mystery how Jones came to know Bauknight’s record.
In a May 23 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, AG Alan Wilson was asked to provide all documents related to Russell Bauknight’s actions in the James Brown estate and trust. Also requested were documents related to two corporations recently formed by Bauknight, JB BIOPIC LLC and JBIP Holdings.
On June 19, assistant deputy AG Tracy Meyers wrote that the office of the Attorney General had no documents that were “responsive” to these requests.
With no documents related to Bauknight’s four-year service as trustee, it is not known who are the officers or who will benefit from the proceeds of the newly-formed corporations. It is also not known how much Bauknight’s attorneys are being paid or expect to be paid from the estate or trust, if disbursements have been made to those who contested Brown’s will, and what money has been paid to whom under Bauknight’s watch.
In other words, Meyer’s letter claims that during the four years Bauknight has served as trustee, he has not provided the AG’s office with any financial records or accounting documents related to the $100 million Brown estate.
Bauknight was appointed by then-AG Henry McMaster under a 2009 settlement deal that has since been overturned by the S.C. Supreme Court as “unjust” and “unreasonable.” The Supreme Court also voided Bauknight’s appointment as trustee and returned the case to an Aiken Court for further proceedings.
At 2009 hearings related to the settlement deal, the Court was assured that the AG’s office would appoint trustees and monitor the estate carefully. Bauknight was appointed by McMaster and continued to serve “at the pleasure” of AG Wilson.
A recent Supreme Court decision criticized the role of the AG’s office in the settlement deal, and AG Wilson has asked to be removed as a party to the hearings. On May 29, however, Jones told the Court that he would be monitoring the situation and planned to “move back in” if circumstances change. The AG’s office would not comment on whether Jones’s decision to reenter the case would be based on whether Bauknight continued to serve as trustee.
Judge Doyet Early of Aiken announced at the status conference that trustees will be appointed according to Brown’s estate documents. At the time, the Probate Court had already appointed Bauknight as special representative, despite his persistent efforts over the past four years to support those who contested Brown’s estate plan.
In the will contest of Brown’s companion Tomirae Hynie, she claimed to be Brown’s wife. A longtime Brown friend, however, claims there is evidence to show Hynie was not Brown’s wife–and she knew it. This evidence could save $25 million for Brown’s charity, but Bauknight has argued against releasing it in two different courts.
The McMaster deal was sharply criticized by the Supreme Court for failing to follow Brown’s estate plan. Brown’s will and trust gave his music empire to an education charity for needy students in S.C. and Georgia, set up education trusts for some grandchildren, and left household goods to six named children. Both the will and trust included clauses: anyone who contests the estate plan receives nothing. Instead of enforcing those clauses, McMaster gave over half of Brown’s music empire to those who contested the will–some of Brown’s children and Hynie.
At an April 26 hearing in Newberry, attorney Jay Bender of Columbia—an expert on the First Amendment and FOIA for the S.C. Press Association–argued that a document need not be in the possession of a public official to be subject to FOIA. If a document was prepared by or used by a public official, it must be released.
In that lawsuit, also related to the James Brown estate, AG Wilson was asked to release: a copy of the Legacy Trust, which McMaster created under the settlement deal; a copy of the contract for the multi-million dollar lawsuit against former trustees, alleging tens of millions in damages to the estate; and valuation documents upon which Bauknight based his claim to the IRS that Brown’s music empire was worth only $4.7 million at his death (previous trustees placed the value of Brown’s 800+ songs and publicity rights at closer to $85 million).
Attorney for the AG, Emory Smith, stated there was no copy of the Legacy Trust in the AG’s office. When asked by the Court who had a copy, Smith responded: “There is not anything else in our office.”
In Meyer’s response to the May 23 FOIA requests, she sent other documents but claimed some were exempt from disclosure under S.C. Code Ann. 30-4-40. That section of the law contains almost 20 exemptions, including trade secrets and ongoing criminal investigations. Meyers did not specify which exemption applied.
Former James Brown trustee, Adele Pope of Newberry, also has filed FOIA lawsuits in the James Brown estate. In an unprecedented move, one of her FOIA lawsuits was consolidated with the Richland County lawsuit in which she and co-trustee Robert Buchanan of Aiken are being sued for tens of millions of dollars by Bauknight, Hynie and others.
Pope and Buchanan defended Brown’s “noble” estate for over five years—capped by their successful appeal to the Supreme Court—but on June 13, Judge Early booted Pope from further proceedings based on the Supreme Court ruling that there had been “extreme discord” between Pope and those who contested the will. She has since filed a motion to vacate this administrative order.
A hearing on Pope’s continued involvement in James Brown matters will be held in Aiken at 1 p.m. on July 9. She is still a defendant in the Richland County case, in which she has countersued for damages related to legal fees and damage to her reputation and career.
AG Wilson Denies Having Documents in James Brown Estate, Despite Deputy’s Claim
July 1, 2013