James Brown’s sad swan song: Will poor kids ever get money for school? (SC)

COLUMBIA, SC — In life, James Brown wrote 800 songs and sang and danced his way his to rock ’n’ roll immortality.

In death, the Godfather of Soul has left an ever-expanding, costly legal battle involving teams of lawyers, judges, contests over money as well as freedom of speech questions. Also at issue are the accessibility of court records and whether a state attorney general exceeded his powers in intervening in the various fights over Brown’s will.

At the center of all these struggles lie three mysteries: How much money now is in Brown’s Beech Island, S.C., estate? How much income will it generate each year? And how much of it – if any – will ever go to help educate needy children in South Carolina and Georgia, as Brown intended?

Where Brown’s money goes is an important question for people like Sue Berkowitz, whose Columbia-based advocacy group the Appleseed Legal Justice Center is dedicated to helping the disadvantaged.

“It concerns us that money that could be going to help educate poor kids is being tied up and possibly diverted and being used for something that was not intended,” said Berkowitz, who is not a part of any of the legal battles.

According to Brown’s will and irrevocable trust agreement, the South Carolina-born Brown wanted to establish the “James Brown ‘I Feel Good’ Trust,” whose income would “be used solely for the tuition, educational expenses and financial assistance of and for poor and and finally needy children, youth or young adults … who seek to … further their education” in South Carolina and Georgia.

In his August 2000 will, Brown also provided money for his grandchildren, and personal property for his six recognized children, worth about $2 million.

Brown died on Christmas Day in 2006, at the age of 73.

More than eight years later, no poor children have gotten any of the money.

Even before the will was produced, the wrangles began, starting with relatives’ arguments over where Brown should be buried. A permanent resting place has not yet been determined.

Women came forward, claiming to be Brown’s wives. Others came forward, claiming to be his children. Brown, in acknowledging six living children in his will, said he “intentionally failed to provide for any other relatives …”

As time went on, disputes that kept money from going to poor children kept evolving and getting more complicated. The first set of executors was replaced with another.

Meanwhile, estimates of the estate’s worth were put forth in the voluminous legal records. They range from some $4.3 million to upwards of $100 million.

No complete, current itemized list of the estate’s holdings, and each one’s value, and how much yearly revenue each might produce, has been made public.

In all, more than two dozen lawsuits and legal actions about various facets of the Brown case have been filed in three counties – Richland, Aiken and Newberry – by lawyers from more than a dozen law firms. Courts involved in the legal action include state circuit courts, U.S. District Court in Columbia, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., and the S.C. Supreme Court.

At one point, the state of South Carolina – acting at the behest of former Attorney General Henry McMaster – took control of the estate and redirected much of its assets. McMaster directed some assets to Brown’s children, some to his last wife, Tommie Rae Hynie, and about one-half to Brown’s trust for poor children.

In 2013, the state Supreme Court overruled McMaster’s actions, saying that McMaster had tried to transfer much of Brown’s estate to “persons who had been specifically excluded from Brown’s will …” McMaster should not have tried to direct a compromise, the high court ruled.

In an interview Friday, McMaster, now lieutenant governor, said he had no regret over his role in forcing a settlement in the Brown case and getting a compromise among so many contending interests. He said he respects the Supreme Court’s opinion overruling him but strongly disagrees with it.

“We did exactly the right thing, which was taking charge of a tangled morass that would have lasted forever,” McMaster said. “There’s no telling where it would have ended up.”

Current Attorney General Alan Wilson continues as a party in the case, but his exact role is unclear. He declined comment Friday.

In January, a judge ruled that Tommie Rae Hynie Brown is Brown’s widow. That ruling gives her more legitimacy than she previously had to seek a part of Brown’s estate.

The most recent court action was last week. The state Supreme Court, without explanation, ordered the Aiken County Circuit Court to freeze all action on Brown matters and the Aiken County clerk of court to provide the justices with all their Brown-related court orders since 2013.

Meanwhile, while not directly related to money that Georgia and South Carolina poor children might someday get, another Brown dispute has made state and national news.

That dispute involves Sue Summer, a Newberry freelance journalist, who has been long trying to find out details of the estate, including its finances, because of her interest in educational opportunities for disadvantaged children and her belief that the matter is newsworthy.

Recently, someone anonymously sent Summer a set of documents that purported to be a court-sealed diary written by Hynie.

Although the documents were under court seal, Summer published their contents on a Facebook site. That prompted state Circuit Judge Doyet Early III to order Summer not to publish the diary. Summer’s lawyers, who include S.C. Press Association attorney Jay Bender, have appealed to the state Supreme Court. The high court also put Early’s order to Summer on hold. The court indicated it will rule on the matter but didn’t say when.

“For the most part, the cases taken one at a time are not that complex,” said Adam Silvernail, a Columbia estate lawyer for one of the contending parties, Adele Pope, a former executor. “Unfortunately, the various parties in the courts have tried to treat all these cases as one living body, and it’s very difficult to get a handle on this situation when you have to approach it as a big mass.”

McMaster said, “I don’t know where it’s going to end up now. The settlement we produced was almost a miracle, and we were saddened to see the Supreme Court did not see it as we saw it.”

Summer said, “Everybody has a dog in this fight. If you have a will, how can you sleep at night about whether it will be carried out? If you believe education can pull people out of poverty, you need to have your eyes on this case to see what happens to Brown’s estate. And if you believe in government transparency, you better be paying attention.”


James Brown’s sad swan song: Will poor kids ever get money for school?
John Monk
February 20, 2015
The State