NEWBERRY — William James Brown has been fighting since 2008 to grant the last wish of his grandfather, music legend James Brown.
“I’m here to do … what my grandfather wanted, to educate children,” William Brown said.
In James Brown’s estate plan, he set up the “I Feel Good Trust” to provide scholarships for needy children in South Carolina and Georgia. Brown died on Christmas in 2006, and to date, not one child has received the first dime.
In an effort to hasten the award of scholarships, William Brown has been working in recent months on the sale of his grandfather’s music empire.
“We had several buyers brought to the table, with offers from $50 to $120 million, but through this process, it became obvious Russell Bauknight did not want to sell,” William Brown said.
Bauknight is the current trustee of James Brown’s estate, appointed by former Attorney General Henry McMaster and continuing to serve “at the pleasure” of current Attorney General Alan Wilson.
In an exclusive telephone interview, William Brown expressed his disappointment that Bauknight seemed to care more about attorneys’ fees for his friends than about needy children. “This is about their retirement, and they are not interested in educating kids or distributing money to kids. It’s all about the money for them, and how much they can pay attorneys.”
William Brown said he hired someone who brought several buyers to the table, but Bauknight did not cooperate and refused to provide a complete inventory of James Brown’s music assets. “No one will write a check unless they know what they’re buying, and Russell Bauknight refused to let us look at everything.”
That is why the buyers walked away, William Brown said. “The puzzle had big missing pieces.”
William Brown added, “Everybody knew: everything he (my grandfather) owned was going to help children.”
He recalled a James Brown visit with President Bush at the White House during which James Brown discussed with the president his “I Feel Good Trust,” in particular a program called “Drugs are out, School is in.”
“He (my grandfather) made it clear even then, he wanted to help needy and poor children,” William Brown said.
In addition to the “I Feel Good” Trust, James Brown also funded an additional education trust for some of his grandchildren, and he left personal and household goods to some children. He left nothing to his companion, Tomi Rae Hynie, and her son.
When the companion and some children sued for a greater share than James Brown had provided for them, McMaster took control of the James Brown assets and rewrote his estate plan. The McMaster settlement deal gave over half of James Brown’s music empire to those who had contested the will.
Former trustees Adele Pope of Newberry and Robert Buchanan of Aiken appealed the settlement deal. Arguments were heard in the case by the S.C. Supreme Court on Nov. 1, 2011, but no decision has been issued.
William Brown first spoke publicly about his commitment to his grandfather’s estate plan in February 2008 when he appeared on WIS-TV with McMaster.
Only six months later, McMaster had rewritten the estate plan and given away over half of the assets James Brown intended for poor children. William Brown took issue with McMaster’s decision to undo Brown’s estate plan, and since then, he has struggled with McMaster, Wilson and Bauknight.
William Brown now questions some of the expenses paid by the estate, including large attorney’s fees. “Russell Bauknight has even paid his wife from my grandfather’s money. She is absolutely working for the estate and billing hours: Russell is keeping it in the family.”
William Brown believes the estate is being managed to benefit attorneys who are friends of Bauknight, and he named Nexsen Pruet attorney Fred Kingsmore among them. According to filed documents, Kingsmore is one of 10 or more Nexsen Pruet attorneys who represent Bauknight as trustee of the Brown estate.
One main point of contention with William Brown has been whether the at-death value of James Brown’s music empire was closer to $100 million, as argued by all previous trustees, or to the $4.7 million value that Bauknight filed with the Internal Revenue Service — a value that William Brown considers ridiculous.
“The low value is bogus, so that no one can say Bauknight damaged the assets,” William Brown said.
Under the McMaster settlement agreement, William Brown’s father Terry Brown was given the right of first refusal to purchase the music empire, but he transferred the right to William Brown.
“The settlement agreement offers a finders’ fee of 2 percent to whoever brings a buyer to the table, but that was to come from the purchaser, not the estate,” he said.
One question raised by Terry Brown’s assignment of his rights to William Brown — who has vigorously opposed the McMaster settlement deal — is why the AG has not notified the S.C. Supreme Court that a major player in the McMaster deal now wants to scuttle the settlement so that all of James Brown’s music empire will go to needy students.
William Brown vows to continue the fight to grant his grandfather’s last wish, and he paraphrased a quote from his grandmother: “It’s not about me winning, it’s about the children winning….This will be a long road, but the work is worth the heavy lifting.”