Newberry Observer

James Brown Estate: several James Brown heirs attack in Federal Court, fate of charity uncertain

NEWBERRY COUNTY — Another battlefront has opened in the 11-year “un-civil war” for entertainer James Brown’s estate.

On Jan. 12, nine of Brown’s children and grandchildren sued in a California federal court, alleging collusion has deprived them of their rights under the Federal Copyright Act and reduced their share of proceeds from the sale of rights to Brown’s music.

Among those accused of collusion are the current trustee of the estate, Russell Bauknight of Columbia, and Tomirae Hynie Brown, who was named Brown’s wife by an Aiken Court in 2015.

The lawsuit also alleges breach of fiduciary duty and “secret dealings” to the detriment of Brown’s children and grandchildren. A detailed accounting of all records, transactions and agreements regarding copyrights is demanded.

“Defendants have concealed illegal back-room agreements designed to destroy, circumvent and/or dilute Plaintiff’s interests,” the lawsuit states.

The complaint raises a particular concern about “concealed terms” in the estate’s undisclosed settlement agreement with Hynie Brown.

Tomirae Hynie Brown and James Brown exchanged vows in 2001, but her 1997 marriage to Javed Ahmed was not annulled until 2004.

Several children and the estate initially appealed the 2015 ruling that Hynie Brown was the wife, but as part of a 2017 settlement with her, the estate dropped its appeal and acknowledged Hynie Brown to be the wife.

In return, she agreed to give Brown’s education charity, the “I Feel Good” Trust, 65% of certain proceeds she receives as a surviving spouse under the Federal Copyright Act, according to the settlement disclosed to the the Court.

The Brown children, however, suspected there was a “secret side agreement.”

“(T)he …paltry consideration for the agreement strongly suggested that there was much more to Defendant’s bargain.”

The children repeatedly requested to be told the “concealed terms,” but attorneys for Hynie Brown and the estate refused. After an October hearing, the Aiken Court denied their motion to disclose the terms.

The federal lawsuit was filed less than three months later.

Collusion between Hynie Brown and Bauknight is not a new allegation in the James Brown estate.

For at least five years former trustee Adele Pope, of Newberry, has made the same allegation in pleadings she has filed in defense of Brown’s charity.

The federal lawsuit repeats many of the allegations in her court filings—some of which the Aiken Court has ordered to be removed from the public record and for which she has been threatened with sanctions.

Among examples of collusion in the federal lawsuit and previous pleadings are:

• While being paid about $30,000 a month, music consultant Peter Afterman assisted Hynie Brown with notices of termination at the U.S. Copyright Office. According to the complaint, this demonstrates “conflicts of interest and collusion.” Previous filings claim Afterman was introduced to Bauknight through Hynie Brown’s attorneys.

• Pope’s pleadings discuss Afterman as the music “expert” who provided information for an at-death $4.7 million appraisal of Brown’s 850+ copyrights and rights to his image. Other trustees had set the value at around $100 million. The federal lawsuit casts serious doubt on the lower value by revealing a 2015 negotiation in which five songs were valued at $3.75 million. The complaint alleges Hynie and the estate “failed to voluntarily pay Plaintiffs their allocate share…”

• The complaint alleges: Hynie Brown ”intentionally concealed” notices of termination, compensation, and side agreements; Bauknight withheld accountings and transactions; unknown “Doe” defendants, corporate or individual, assisted in the collusion. The use of “Doe” defendants reveals that not even the Brown children know what entities the estate has created.

Brown’s will left his music empire, including 850+ copyrights and rights to his image, to his “I Feel Good” Trust for needy students in South Carolina and Georgia.

For those students, the important question is: how vigorously will James Brown’s charity be defended, and what will its fate be?

The charity owns outright the rights to Brown’s image and some other assets, but spouses and heirs are given certain copyright termination rights under the Federal Copyright Act.

How charities can work to protect their interest in copyrights was the subject of a 2011 professional article by Pope and copyright expert W. Jeffrey Smith of Newberry, “Private Foundations, Copyright Heirs and Musical Millionaires: or the James Brown “I Feel Good” Trust Doesn’t.”

The article was shared with Bauknight, Limited Special Administrator David Sojourner, Attorney General Alan Wilson, and others with an interest in protecting Brown’s charity.

None of the article’s recommendations were implemented, and much of the quagmire that has befallen the estate and trust of the “Hardest Working Man in Show Business” was predicted in the article.

There is an example of success, however. Entertainer Ray Charles also funded his foundation with copyrights, and his foundation sued for and in 2015 won a “seat at the table” in copyright negotiations. The Ray Charles children were represented by the same attorney who now represents the Brown children, Marc Toberoff of California.

Other James Brown proceedings will continue Feb. 20 in Aiken County.

Sue Summer for The Newberry Observer