NEWBERRY — Judge Doyet Early of Aiken defied a directive of the S.C. Supreme Court on Oct. 1 and appointed Columbia CPA Russell Bauknight as the sole trustee for the education charity established by entertainment icon James Brown.
The “I Feel Good” Trust was intended to help needy students in South Carolina and Georgia with education costs, and it was to be funded with Brown’s worldwide music empire. In 2009, a settlement deal crafted by former Attorney General Henry McMaster gave over half of the music empire to those who had contested Brown’s estate plan. Brown’s will and trust both include clauses: anyone who contests, receives nothing.
The McMaster deal was appealed by former trustees, Adele Pope of Newberry and Robert Buchanan of Aiken, who were removed as trustees for opposing the deal. On May 8, the Supreme Court overturned the McMaster settlement, saying the deal “dismembered” Brown’s estate plan.
In overturning the deal, the Supreme Court returned the case to Early with a directive “to appoint fiduciaries … in accordance with the provisions of Brown’s estate and trust documents.”
Brown’s trust documents call for three trustees, but in a Sept. 4 hearing, Bauknight announced he would refuse to serve if other trustees were appointed. He further stated that when the time came for there to be three trustees, he would bring the court a plan for the transition.
Bauknight was appointed by McMaster on May 26, 2009, and continued to serve “at the pleasure” of AG Alan Wilson. The Supreme Court opinion voided his appointment, but Early then signed an order for Bauknight to continue the administration of the estate until fiduciaries could be appointed.
Bauknight and five others applied for positions with the Brown estate and trust. In the Oct. 1 order, Judge Early praised Bauknight’s service and cited Judge Neal Dickert’s “long and distinguished career,” Larry Grooms’ service as expert witness in tax matters, Scott Keniley’s familiarity with the protection of intellectual property, and the Rev. Larry Fryer’s service to the community.
Columbia attorney David Sojourner also applied for a limited position, which he was granted. Judge Early named Sojourner “limited special trustee” for the purpose of defending against challenges to Brown’s will and trust. Sojourner was invited by Bauknight’s attorneys in July to apply, and as a condition of his appointment, Sojourner’s law firm will represent him in matters related to the estate.
Judge Early wrote in the order that some parties have questioned whether Bauknight should remain as trustee because of his support for those who challenged Brown’s will and who were part of the McMaster deal. “The Court does not believe that a conflict of interest exists. Mr. Bauknight was bound, as a fiduciary, to follow the prior settlement agreement. That settlement agreement has now been overturned. Accordingly, Mr. Bauknight … must defend the will and trust against all challenges.”
On behalf of those who challenged Brown’s will and trust, Bauknight has fought for four years against releasing public documents under the Freedom of Information Act. He has asked to keep gag orders on the diary of Brown’s companion, Tomi Rae Hynie, even though some believe the diary could provide crucial evidence that Hynie was not Brown’s wife, as she claims.
Bauknight has also fought to prevent the AG’s office from releasing the Legacy Trust, which was created by McMaster; the contract under which Bauknight and others sued former trustees; and documents upon which Bauknight based a $4.7 million at-death valuation of Brown’s estate for the IRS.
Judge Early underscored that his decision to appoint only one trustee was “an interim decision,” and that the appointment of fiduciaries will be revisited upon the conclusion of all estate litigation.
Applicant Scott Keniley, an entertainment lawyer from Atlanta, said he plans to ask for reconsideration of the Oct. 1 decision.
Keniley specializes in protecting intellectual property and maximizing its growth, a critical issue with Brown’s trust. He also has a strong personal commitment to education and strong contacts in the music industry. Keniley was elected to the Board of Governors for the Recording Academy (Grammy) and serves on its education committee. He is also former VP and general counsel to a publically traded entertainment company.
Brown’s son Daryl also expressed disappointment that the State of South Carolina judicial system has once again violated his father’s last wishes. Daryl was his father’s lead guitar player for eight years, and the two became very close when touring the world together. Daryl was among the six children Brown named in his will, to whom he left household goods and personal effects.
Daryl has renounced his siblings’ challenge of their father’s will and trust, and in the hope his father’s estate plan can be upheld as written, he has launched a website to raise funds for legal fees: www.indiegogo.com/projects/james-brown-s-2000-will-help-honor-it.
Daryl is taking his case directly to James Brown fans around the world and is counting on them to make sure his father’s wishes are respected. In particular, he questioned Hynie’s claim to be his father’s wife — and why the Aiken court has refused to lift gag orders on diaries that could refute her claim.
In a strange twist, the same children who recommended Bauknight for the trustee position on Sept. 4 raised questions about the estate in a Sept. 23 letter from entertainment lawyer Marc Toberoff to Warner Chappell Music Inc. In the letter Toberoff claims to represent James Brown’s children: Terry Brown, Larhonda Waller, Deanna Brown Thomas, Yamma Brown, Venisha Brown, Jeanette Mitchell Bellinger, and Cinnamon Nicole Parris, as well as his grandchild Tonya Brown.
According to the letter, these heirs believe that Hynie and her son, James Jr., have served “purported notices of termination” related to Brown’s copyrights. The letter notifies Warner/Chappell that the heirs contest the standing of Hynie and James Jr. to serve any notices of termination on Brown’s music under the Copyright Act.