AG, James Brown trustee fight to kick out witnesses in trial

By Sue Summer - For The Newberry Observer

NEWBERRY COUNTY — Attorney General Alan Wilson is fighting alongside the James Brown estate to kick out witnesses from a Sept. 5 trial that had promised to answer key questions about why the last wishes of the famed entertainer were not honored by the State of South Carolina.

The trial itself will focus on the question of whether Adele Pope of Newberry will be paid fees she was awarded by the Court in 2008 for her service as a co-trustee from Nov. 2007 to May 2009. Current trustee Russell Bauknight, Columbia CPA, denied payment in 2013, alleging Pope had caused damage to the estate.

Testimony during the trial, if not suppressed, may allow the public to see — for the first time — what happened in the months leading up to the State takeover of the Brown estate and what the true at-death value of Brown’s music empire may be.

In recent court filings, Pope has submitted depositions from expert witnesses who testify she gave exemplary service. Also filed are depositions with expert witnesses’ testimony about the at-death value of Brown’s music empire, which Pope claims is critical to determining her commissions — and to setting the record straight on how much in scholarships Brown’s charity should award annually.

No question has been more hotly disputed in the James Brown estate saga than the at-death value of his music empire, which includes 850+ songs and rights to his image. Brown’s will left these assets to his education charity, the “I Feel Good” trust, for needy students in South Carolina and Georgia.

Pope and co-trustee Robert Buchanan of Aiken claimed the at-death value of the music empire was about $84 million, but Bauknight later filed documents with the IRS that claimed the at-death value was $4.7 million.

In Supreme Court filings, Attorney General Wilson has argued that Pope and Buchanan over-valued the estate by $79 million to claim a higher commission, which would be a federal felony.

The estate claims to have a $4.7 million appraisal for the music empire but has fought against releasing the appraisal and all documents related to it. The firm that conducted the appraisal, Philpott Ball Werner (PBW), is not on the estate’s expert witness list for the Sept. 5 trial.

The music expert listed by the estate, Roger Miller, when deposed by Pope, valued royalties alone at $45-60 million, without considering rights to Brown’s image.

That is more consistent with Pope’s expert R.B. Alexander, who worked on Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s publicity rights. Alexander set the at-death value at about $105 million, minus a $15 debt.

Alexander’s opinion, which can be found online with Aiken County court filings, was that the $84 million value set by Pope and Buchanan was “both correct and conservative.”

He characterized PBW’s low valuation as “reckless” because of its possible impact on the charity: $3 million less in scholarships per year.

Deficiencies in the $4.7 million appraisal, he said, could have been caused by PBW or by a “failure … to provide PBW with correct information.”

On Aug. 22, Bauknight moved to exclude Alexander’s testimony.

On Aug. 25, Bauknight also moved to exclude testimony from Newberry copyright expert William Jeffrey Smith. His testimony dealt with the impact of the State takeover on the Brown estate and how the subsequent McMaster settlement deal damaged Brown’s charity, the “I Feel Good” trust.

Bauknight and the Attorney General have been fighting for several months to exclude the testimony of several staff members in the Attorney General’s office and of Gov. Henry McMaster (former Attorney General), many of whom were closely involved in the Brown estate from the beginning.

On Aug. 11, Pope filed a return to a motion by Bauknight that Governor McMaster, Attorney General Alan Wilson, and others be excluded from testifying.

According to the filing, “The Attorney General (Wilson) and Defendant (Bauknight) appear to be acting jointly to try to obstruct fair inquiry into the false IRS filings made by Russell Bauknight….”

The court filing continues, “The devaluation scheme which led to the false IRS filings was the backbone of the attempt of Tomirae, the Attorney General and Bauknight to discredit Buchanan and Pope so that they could keep personal control of James Brown’s ‘I Feel Good’ Charity and his private property.”

Tomirae Hynie Brown, Brown’s companion, was named Brown’s wife in January 2015 by the Aiken court, even though she was married to another man when she and Brown exchanged vows in 2001. The court refused to admit her diary as evidence in the hearing, even though it contained evidence she was not Brown’s wife: in her diary, she pleads with Brown to marry her, and she quotes Brown as saying he has no wife.

The spousal ruling is under appeal.

Bauknight also filed a motion to hold the trial without a jury, and on Aug. 18, Judge Doyet Early ruled there will be no jury — based on “the voluminous record in this case, the returns and memoranda, and arguments of counsel.” The court found the trial was a question of equity to be tried by the Court.

Pope has filed for reconsideration of that ruling.

Background:

Music icon James Brown died on Christmas Day 2006 with what he thought was an iron-clad will. He gave his music empire to an education charity for needy students in South Carolina and Georgia, the “I Feel Good” Trust. Household effects went to six named children, he set up an education trust of up to $2 million for certain grandchildren—and anyone who contested the will received nothing. To his companion, he left nothing. The two had exchanged vows in 2001, but he later discovered she was married to another man. That marriage was not annulled until 2004.

By the end of 2007 the will was contested by five of the six children and the companion.

The first set of trustees resigned over financial irregularities, and a second set of trustees were appointed by the Court: Adele Pope of Newberry and Bob Buchanan of Aiken. The second set of trustees was sued by grandson Forlando Brown, who alleged their appointment was illegal.

Attorney General Henry McMaster worked a settlement deal in 2008 that gave over half of what Brown left his charity to will contestants and gave to himself the right to appoint trustees. In 2009 he took over the estate and he appointed Bauknight the sole trustee. Pope and Buchanan appealed because the settlement ignored Brown’s will. In 2013 the Supreme Court overturned the McMaster settlement and voided Bauknight’s appointment, the Aiken Court reappointed Bauknight, and he denied Pope’s claim for payment for her trustee service.

The case was returned to Aiken in 2013 for further proceedings with a directive to follow the will. No proposed settlement has followed the will, the “I Feel Good” trust has not awarded the first scholarship, and no full accounting has ever been given to the Probate Court for the Brown music empire, its corporate and/or personal holdings, or the charity.

By Sue Summer

For The Newberry Observer