COLUMBIA — Attorney General Alan Wilson has dropped out of a multimillion dollar lawsuit against former trustees of the James Brown estate.
In a Richland County courtroom on March 18, Mark Gende of the Wingate Law Firm in Columbia told Judge Casey Manning that he no longer represented the attorney general in Richland 4900.
“I represent all plaintiffs minus the AG,” he said.
The lawsuit was brought by the Wingate firm against former trustees Adele Pope of Newberry and Bob Buchanan of Aiken. The plaintiffs alleged Pope and Buchanan had damaged the estate by tens of millions of dollars during their 18-month tenure as trustees.
Plaintiffs included the attorney general, Brown’s companion, claimed relatives, and Columbia CPA Russell Bauknight for the Legacy Trust.
In their counterclaims, Pope and Buchanan alleged that the lawsuit damaged their reputations and ability to practice law and was intended to stop their appeal of a settlement deal forged by former Attorney General Henry McMaster. The Supreme Court has since overturned the McMaster deal as being “unjust” and “unreasonable.”
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, including Alan Wilson, are currently seeking relief from default because the Wingate firm did not respond on time to the counterclaims.
Over 18 months ago, Adele Pope requested under FOIA that the attorney general release several documents related to the Brown estate, among them a copy of the Legacy Trust. She filed two FOIA lawsuits when she did not receive them, and the cases were consolidated but not merged with Richland 4900.
Alongside Bauknight, who is appointed by and serves at the attorney general’s pleasure, Wilson fought the release of the Legacy Trust.
According to a memorandum distributed by Assistant Attorney General J. Emory Smith before the hearing, the only documents in the possession of the attorney general that might respond to Pope’s FOIA request are unsigned drafts.
If the Legacy Trust agreements were never signed, that could raise questions as to whether the trust existed and who would be responsible for any damages associated with bringing the lawsuit against Buchanan and Pope.
Keith Babcock of Columbia, representing the Legacy Trust, had filed a motion to stay arguments in the case. Without hearing arguments related to the Babcock motion, Judge Manning downgraded the hearing to a “status conference” and agreed only to hear from attorneys, not to make rulings.
This change was made from the bench despite Smith’s statement to the court: “The AG is ready to have his motion heard.”
Pope also sought under the FOIA:
• Documents related to the $4.7 million at-death valuation of Brown’s estate filed by Bauknight with the IRS
• A copy of the retention agreement under which the Wingate firm brought suit against Pope and Buchanan on behalf of the AG and private clients
• A copy of the diary kept by Brown’s companion, which may provide key evidence as to whether she was, as she claimed, Brown’s wife and entitled to a spousal portion of his estate.
During the hearing, Smith told Judge Manning that the AG’s office had no objection to producing the three-page fee agreement with the Wingate law firm, if Judge Manning did not object.
Manning allegedly placed an “oral stay” on the document in a September 2011 hearing, although his written order made no mention of a stay. Manning chose to make no decisions at the March 18 hearing, however, other than to request memorandums be filed by all parties within 10 days.
Smith had distributed copies of his memorandum before Manning entered the courtroom.
Adam Silvernail, attorney for Pope, said the FOIA is supposed to provide speedy, convenient, easy access to public documents, but instead it has been used to create a one-and-a-half year delay for his client.
“And these are clearly public documents,” he said.
Brown’s estate plan stated that his music empire was to fund the “I Feel Good” education charity for needy students in South Carolina and Georgia. His household goods were given to six named children, and his companion received nothing. The McMaster deal gave away over half of what Brown intended for charity to those who challenged the will.