Attorney General dodges FOIA in James Brown estate ruling

By Sue Summer - For The Newberry Observer

NEWBERRY — In two 2011 lawsuits related to the estate of legendary entertainer James Brown, Circuit Court Judge Doyet Early of Aiken has ruled Attorney General Alan Wilson is exempt from Freedom of Information Act compliance because of a 2010 lawsuit that his office brought against a former James Brown trustee.

Both rulings by Judge Early are now in the S.C. Court of Appeals.

The FOIA lawsuits were brought by former trustee and Newberry resident Adele Pope five years ago when AG Wilson refused to release public documents related to the Brown estate settlement agreement; and a contingency-fee lawsuit that involved the Attorney General and private parties, Richland 4900.

Judge Early cited Richland 4900 in stripping Pope of her FOIA rights. In this 2010 lawsuit, former AG Henry McMaster, will contestants and others sued Pope and Robert Buchanan of Aiken. They served as Brown’s co-trustees from late 2007 to early 2009.

According to Judge Early’s June 14 order, the documents Pope was seeking under the FOIA are “potentially discoverable … under pending litigation,” and FOIA cannot be used to bypass discovery.

Ironically, the Attorney General, who argued for the dismissal, is the constitutional officer who is responsible for enforcing the FOIA. Yet, it is his lawsuit against Pope and Buchanan, under Judge Early’s ruling, that deprives Pope of her right as a citizen to obtain public documents under FOIA.

The FOIA is intended to give citizens access to public documents “at a minimum cost or delay,” and public officials are given 15 working days to respond to FOIA requests. A reasonable fee may be charged for copying costs.

It appears the FOIA standard of “minimum cost or delay” may not be met in Pope’s cases.The lawsuits were filed five years ago. Four years ago they were transferred from Newberry to Richland County, and one was consolidated with the private lawsuit, Richland 4900 — even though the FOIA involves only public officials, not private parties.

Both FOIA cases then languished in Richland County until June 2016, when Judge Early dismissed them without holding a hearing on the merits of the cases.

Judge Early’s ruling instructs Pope to use discovery instead of FOIA to obtain the requested documents, but discovery cannot be completed at a “minimum cost,” given the attorneys’ fees required.

Attorneys’ fees have already claimed millions from the money Brown left to his “I Feel Good” Trust. The last year for which an accounting was filed with the Probate Court is 2014, and in that year alone, the estate paid attorneys about $1.5 million.

As of Sept. 14, no accounting for 2015 had been filed, nor had an extension been granted. It is therefore not possible to say how much in legal fees the estate paid in 2015.

In court filings, Pope and Buchanan have claimed the Richland 4900 lawsuit was filed to force them into dropping their appeal of the settlement brokered by former AG Henry McMaster. Under this settlement, will contestants were given over half of what Brown left his charity, despite clauses in his will and trust that said: anyone who contests, receives nothing.

The Supreme Court overturned the McMaster settlement in 2013 as a “dismemberment” of Brown’s estate plan.

AG McMaster, will contestants and others alleged in Richland 4900 that Pope and Buchanan caused “tens of millions” in damages to the Brown estate by refusing a $100 million offer. Yet, the current trustee, who was appointed by AG McMaster in 2009, has filed documents with the IRS that claim the at-death value of Brown’s estate—including almost 900 copyrights—was $4.7 million.

Previous trustees placed the value of Brown’s estate at $85-$100 million.

Judge Early’s dismissal of the 2011 FOIA lawsuits allows AG Wilson not to release a copy of the $4.7 million appraisal of Brown’s assets. AG Wilson claims never to have seen or had custody of the appraisal, even though he asked the Supreme Court to accept the $4.7 million value during the appeal of the McMaster settlement.

James Brown died on Christmas Day in 2006. He left behind will and trust documents—and a voice recording—that expressed his intention to set up an education charity for needy students in South Carolina and Georgia, the “I Feel Good” trust.

After almost 10 years, not one dime has been distributed to the first needy student.

By Sue Summer

For The Newberry Observer

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