Since a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit related to the James Brown estate was filed in Newberry County two years ago, I have been reporting for the Newberry Observer on the legal wranglings in the case. It was with great interest that I read the Free Times cover story last week (“Saving the Godfather’s Soul,” Oct. 23) and I appreciate the opportunity to address some questions raised by it.
Is the James Brown estate well managed?
In Free Times, current trustee Russell Bauknight received high praise for his management of the estate from entertainment mogul Peter Afterman. Afterman has been hired by Bauknight to manage the intellectual assets of the estate, and even though Bauknight refuses to release the fee arrangement, Afterman may have a multi-million dollar reason to sing Bauknight’s praises.
An unbiased evaluation is impossible without the release of accounting records for the estate, as well as for two related corporations Bauknight set up last year. Bauknight has not released these records, however. Such secrecy makes it difficult to trust the glowing reports, but I hope the estate is doing well — and that James Brown receives the credit. He worked plenty hard for that.
Minding the store or giving it away?
Bauknight was also praised in last week’s article by one of the two daughters who sued Brown over copyrights while he was living.
Of course she praised Bauknight: For four years, he has fought alongside her, some of her siblings and Brown’s former companion to uphold a settlement deal that the S.C. Supreme Court called a “dismemberment” of her father’s estate plan.
Brown left his music empire to an education charity for needy students in South Carolina and Georgia, the I Feel Good Trust. He also established scholarship funds for several of his grandchildren. Brown left nothing to companion Tomi Rae Hynie or her son.
Both the will and trust included a clause: Anyone who contests receives nothing. Still, Brown’s companion contested the estate plan, as did five of the six children in the will. In 2009, as the second set of trustees were fighting to defend Brown’s estate plan, former Attorney General Henry McMaster brokered a settlement deal that gave away over half of Brown’s music empire to those who had contested the will.
The settlement deal was then appealed by Adele Pope of Newberry and Robert Buchanan of Aiken, the second set of trustees. Arguments on the appeal were heard Nov. 1, 2011, and in May of 2013, the Supreme Court overturned the deal and returned the case to Aiken for further proceedings.
For four years, Bauknight has been fighting alongside those who contested the will. He acknowledged Brown’s companion as the wife and referred to her as Mrs. Brown. Bauknight’s attorney argued before the Supreme Court that “Mrs. Brown’s” spousal claim was a “slam dunk,” and his attorneys have fought hard in two courts to prevent the release of a diary that could discredit Hynie’s claim to be Brown’s wife.
Since the McMaster deal, all of Brown’s children have confirmed that Hynie was not the wife, and they knew it when they did the McMaster deal. Hynie’s spousal claim is a critical issue under the Federal Copyright Act, and Bauknight’s actions of the past four years could prove problematic.
What is the at-death value of the estate?
In Bauknight’s 2009 testimony in which he endorsed the settlement deal, he stated the estate was worth about $80 million. All previous trustees had set the value around that mark.
In 2011, however, Bauknight’s attorney David Black gave a telephone interview in which he said a New York appraiser placed the at-death value at $4.7 million on the intellectual property in James Brown’s estate. Black refused to release the name of the appraiser for verification. In the Free Times article, Bauknight indicated the appraiser was from Boston, but again he refused to provide a name for confirmation.
South Carolina law requires that a “qualified and disinterested appraiser may be employed to ascertain the value of any asset, the value of which may be subject to reasonable doubt. If an appraiser is employed, his/her name and address should be indicated with the item or items he/she appraised.”
A copy of the appraisal must then be filed with the Probate Court.
Bauknight, however, has refused to do so.
Do no rules apply?
The Supreme Court sent the Brown matter back to Aiken with clear instructions: Appoint trustees according to the estate documents. Brown’s trust documents required the appointment of three trustees.
Bauknight, however, announced he would refuse to serve if other trustees were appointed. On Oct. 1, Judge Doyet “Jack” Early issued an order exactly as Bauknight requested — in direct violation of the Supreme Court opinion in May and contrary to Brown’s estate documents of 2000.
Trouble of his own making?
The two trustees who appealed the discredited McMaster deal, Buchanan and Pope, were vindicated in May when the Supreme Court overturned the settlement, returning over half of the music empire to the charity. In 2010, however, these two trustees were sued by Bauknight on behalf of the attorney general, Hynie and some claimed family members.
Since the Supreme Court ruling, the attorney general has asked to be removed as a plaintiff, and the Wingate firm, which is handling Bauknight’s case, has written the judge, asking that nothing be heard in the case until all the legal proceedings are finished in Aiken.
There is no talk of dropping the lawsuit, even though last summer Buchanan settled with the Brown estate. Buchanan paid nothing, and Bauknight paid him the $500,000 the court awarded him years earlier for his service as trustee. Shortly after Buchanan settled, Bauknight paid Wingate $500,000 to keep fighting Pope.
Why can’t scholarships be awarded now?
Prior to the 2008 settlement, Buchanan and Pope crafted a method by which even grandchildren whose parents were contesting the Trust might still receive education benefits, provided their parents agreed to certain conditions.
One reason Buchanan and Pope appealed the McMaster settlement was to protect the $285,000 education funds that Brown’s estate plan established for seven grandchildren. The 2009 McMaster settlement destroyed those education funds, but they have now been restored by the Supreme Court opinion of May 8.
During interviews for the trustees’ positions, Bauknight told Judge Early he had set aside $1 million for scholarships. Last week he told Free Times he has $2 million. Still, Bauknight has not released any of the money to the grandchildren.
Keeping secrets seems to be a pattern here: Bauknight refuses to give the name of the appraiser as required by the Probate Code, he fights to keep the Hynie diary under wraps, he refuses to release his pay arrangement with Afterman.
Truly, the time for keeping secrets is past. It is time for openness and honesty in the James Brown estate. Then, perhaps, we can end this contentiousness and do what James Brown wanted to do.
In his estate plan, James Brown set up what could be the largest-ever private foundation for education in South Carolina. His wishes have not been respected by his children, his companion, the attorney general of South Carolina — or Russell Bauknight.
Starting clean at this point, with someone totally committed to Brown’s estate plan, might be the saving grace for the trust.
No, sir, James Brown’s soul is not yet saved. Nor will it be as long as our courts continue to indulge secrecy, cronyism and hubris.
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