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Federal Judge ends 2-year FOIA wrangling over James Brown contract

Sue Summer For The Observer

7 months 12 days 12 hours ago |604 Views | | | Email | Print

NEWBERRY — A federal court has ended two years of legal wrangling in South Carolina courts by releasing the Wingate contract, the legal retention agreement under which former trustees of the James Brown estate were sued in 2010.


The contract was the subject of two Freedom of Information Act lawsuits in state courts, but on Nov. 15 it was released in an unrelated federal case.


For over two years, Attorney General Alan Wilson and his counsel fought the release of the Wingate contract, but it took only days for Magistrate Judge Gregory Wehrman to rule: “The retention agreement … is a public document due to the involvement of the South Carolina Attorney General.”


Under the agreement, former Brown trustees Robert Buchanan of Aiken and Adele Pope of Newberry, were sued for millions of dollars by the state of South Carolina, the Attorney General, current Brown trustee Russell Bauknight, and several of Brown’s claimed heirs.


The suit alleges Buchanan and Pope damaged the estate while serving as co-trustees from late 2007 to early 2009.


Buchanan and Pope tried for almost a year to obtain a copy of the contract after the lawsuit, Richland 4900, was filed. When Wilson’s counsel refused to release the document, Pope filed an FOIA lawsuit in August 2011. The Wingate contract was also the subject of an FOIA lawsuit filed by Sue Summer in December 2012.


The FOIA requires the release of public documents, and the AG is responsible for enforcement. In the newly-released Wingate contract, Article III-F clearly states: “This Agreement shall be considered a public document.”


AG Wilson’s attorneys had argued against — and used convoluted legal maneuverings to prevent — the release of the Agreement in three South Carolina courts for over two years. To complicate FOIA compliance, some of Brown’s claimed heirs attempted to intervene in the FOIA lawsuits to stop the release of the Wingate contract.


Even after AG Wilson claimed that he was no longer interested in pursuing the litigation, his counsel continued the legal maneuverings.


When the Supreme Court initially overturned the McMaster settlement, the AG submitted a March 14 motion for reconsideration in which he said McMaster was reluctant to sue Buchanan and Pope because they enjoy a “superb” reputation throughout the legal community. He further wrote of Richland 4900: “In light of this Court’s ruling, we now see no need to pursue this action further.”


The AG’s motion in March also expressed the hope for a resolution in the near future of the FOIA requests for the Wingate litigation agreement.


Despite these representations to the Court, the AG’s Counsel in Richland 4900, Mark Gende, appeared in a Newberry courtroom on April 29 and resisted the release of the Wingate contract.


After the final decision of the Supreme Court on May 8, Gende further asked Richland County Judge Casey Manning to delay any hearing on the FOIA issue. The matter remained unresolved until the federal judge ruling on Nov. 15.


In previous filings, Buchanan and Pope alleged that Richland 4900 was brought for the improper purpose of forcing them to drop an appeal to the Supreme Court of a settlement deal brokered by former AG McMaster. The Court agreed with Buchanan and Pope and overturned the McMaster settlement in a May 8 decision, calling the deal a “dismemberment” of Brown’s carefully crafted estate plan.


The Wingate contract is complex and seems to raise more questions than it answers.


The contract is not signed by clients, but by attorneys: Alan Medlin for Brown’s companion Tomirae Hynie, who claimed to be Brown’s wife; and David Bell for son Terry. Attorney Louis Levenson of Atlanta signed the contract, but he failed to list his clients.


Buchanan and Pope filed counterclaims in Richland 4900, which is now in default because the Wingate firm failed to answer pleadings in a timely manner. Who would be responsible for paying the counterclaims, if awarded: the clients who did not sign or the attorneys who did?


The document is clearly a contingency fee contract and says no legal fees are to be paid until damages are recovered. There has been no recovery; the case has not yet been heard. Still, Bauknight paid the Wingate firm over a half-million dollars in Nov./Dec. 2012 to pursue the lawsuit against Pope.


Robert Buchanan is no longer a party. In his settlement with the estate on all matters related to James Brown, the estate wrote Buchanan a check for $500,000 for his service as trustee, and he paid nothing on the Wingate lawsuit.


Other documents have not been released by the AG’s office and are still the subject of pending FOIA litigation.

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