Former trustee challenges court to protect ‘I Feel Good’ charity

Sue Summer For The Observer

December 9, 2013

NEWBERRY — Entertainment legend James Brown died on Christmas Day 2006, leaving behind a great gift.

Under Brown’s estate plan, his worldwide music empire was left to the “I Feel Good” Trust, an education charity for needy students in South Carolina and Georgia. Brown also set up education trusts for several grandchildren.

Brown might have established the largest-ever private foundation for education in South Carolina, with a value of about $100 million.

In the seven years since Brown died, however, not one penny of his gift has reached needy students. Not even his grandchildren have received education funds.

On Dec. 3 in Aiken, one former trustee pleaded with the court to protect Brown’s “I Feel Good” Trust so that Brown’s gift might be given to the needy students he wanted to help, not to those who contested his will.

In 2007 Adele Pope of Newberry was appointed by the court as a co-trustee of Brown’s estate, along with Robert Buchanan of Aiken. They served 18 months before former Attorney General Henry McMaster replaced them with sole trustee Russell Bauknight of Columbia in a settlement deal that gave away over half of Brown’s music empire to those who had contested his will.

Pope and Buchanan appealed the McMaster settlement because it ignored Brown’s “noble” estate plan. In May 2013, the Supreme Court agreed with them and overturned the deal, calling it a “dismemberment” of Brown’s carefully crafted estate plan.

In the Dec. 3 hearing, Pope asked the court to void Bauknight’s recent re-appointment as special administrator. She argued that Bauknight continues to work with Brown’s companion Tomirae Hynie and others to destroy Brown’s charity, which Pope and Buchanan worked for four years to save.

Bauknight serves as an agent for Hynie and others in a Richland County lawsuit against Pope and Buchanan, filed by the Wingate law firm, she said.

In its May 2013 opinion, the Supreme Court returned $50 million to the charity, Pope said. The question now is will the charity keep what the Supreme Court has returned? After the May 8 opinion, at a May 29 status conference, attorneys for those who contested the will asked to go into the judge’s chambers and re-do the McMaster settlement.

Pope pleaded with the court to prevent another settlement that would destroy Brown’s charity.

“I care about what your honor appointed me to do …I care about the needy students James Brown wanted to help,” said Pope, a former school teacher.

Columbia attorney Billy Newsome of Nexsen Pruet, representing Bauknight, argued that Pope has no standing in any matters related to the James Brown estate, except as a creditor.

The estate has refused to pay Pope for her service as trustee, even though the Court awarded her fees in 2008. Her co-trustee, Buchanan, was awarded $500,000 by the court in 2008, but the estate did not settle with him until 2012. He was given what the court awarded him and dropped from the Wingate lawsuit.

Bauknight has fought the release of several public documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) during the past four years, among them the Wingate retention agreement.

A federal judge recently released the contingency-fee contract, which gives the Wingate law firm a 40 percent legal fee. The contract is signed not by plaintiffs as required by ethical practices for contingency contracts South Carolina. It is signed only by attorneys for plaintiffs.

According to filings by Pope, the attorneys who signed the contract expected to be paid more than $20 million in contingency legal fees if the McMaster settlement had held.

In pleadings, Pope has claimed the Wingate lawsuit was an attempt to force Buchanan and Pope to drop their appeal of the McMaster settlement.

Even though there has been no recovery in the lawsuit, Bauknight paid the Wingate firm $563,000 in 2012.

Pope said while she and Buchanan worked to preserve the “I Feel Good” Trust during the appeal, Bauknight was working to give Hynie $25 million and control of Brown’s copyrights.

Hynie was married to another man when she and Brown exchanged vows in 2001, and a longtime friend says her “diary” would refute her spousal claim. Bauknight’s attorneys, however, have fought in three courts to prevent the release of the diary.

Newsome argued that Pope should be sanctioned for asking to be heard on Estate and Trust issues, as did Bauknight’s individual attorney, Frederick Crawford. Pope argued that Bauknight has attacked her because of her defense of Brown’s trust. “He has tried to crush anyone who works to protect the trust.”

Newsome answered, “She (Pope) has continued to try to involve herself in every aspect of this case….and she has no standing.”

Pope’s attorney in the Wingate case, Adam Silvernail of Columbia, issued a statement following the hearing.

“I am shocked that Mr. Bauknight would assert that Mrs. Pope lacks special interest or other standing to be heard on Estate and Trust issues. In fact, Mrs. Pope’s long history of defending the Estate and Trust — even as Mr. Bauknight and others attacked her for doing so — shows her devotion to honoring Mr. Brown’s wishes and has given her particular knowledge of the challenges facing the Estate and Trust.”

Silvernail explained that the doctrine of “special interest standing” allows individuals with proper motivation and, ideally, specialized knowledge, to enforce charitable trusts which are at risk.

“Mr. Brown’s charitable gift is at risk, and I can imagine no person more qualified than Mrs. Pope for special interest standing in this instance,” he said.

The judge made no decision but asked both parties to submit proposed orders by Dec. 20.