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SC: Sole Defender of James Brown’s Charity Booted From Further Hearings

Former James Brown trustee, Adele Pope of Newberry, has defended the “noble” estate plan of the legendary entertainer for over five years—but on June 13, an Aiken County judge booted her out of further proceedings.

In Brown’s 2000 will and trust documents, he left his $100 million music empire to scholarships for needy students in South Carolina and Georgia, gave his household possessions to some of his children, and left nothing to his companion Tomirae Hynie or her son. When those who wanted more contested the will, Attorney General (AG) Henry McMaster rewrote Brown’s estate plan in a settlement deal that gave half of the music empire to those Brown intentionally excluded.

Pope and co-trustee Robert Buchanan of Aiken fought for the Brown estate plan with an appeal of the McMaster deal to the South Carolina Supreme Court, claiming it did not follow Brown’s will and trust. The court agreed with Pope and Buchanan in the strongest of terms, calling the deal “unjust,” “unreasonable,” and a total “dismemberment” of Brown’s estate plan. The court returned the case to Aiken County Circuit Judge Doyet Early to appoint trustees under Brown’s documents and to examine commissions and attorneys’ fees of all Brown fiduciaries. Judge Early is also overseeing contests to Brown’s estate plan, which includes clauses that anyone who contests the will and trust receives nothing.

Current trustee Russell Bauknight, however, had fought to keep the McMaster deal under which he was appointed. Bauknight’s attorneys argued for the settlement deal in the S.C. Supreme Court, and he fought the release of documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that might have shown the McMaster deal was ill-advised. Bauknight fought the release of the Hynie diary, which could show she was not entitled to a spousal share of the estate, as she claimed. He fought the release of documents used as the basis for his at-death valuation of Brown’s worldwide music empire, which Bauknight claimed to the IRS was less than $5 million. He also worked to eliminate those who opposed the deal, refusing payment to former trustees until one was forced to give up his defense of Brown’s estate plan.

Last year Buchanan accepted a settlement of $500,000 for agreeing to drop out of the Brown case. That is the same amount he was awarded for his service as trustee in a January 2008 order by Judge Early, but Bauknight had refused to pay Buchanan under Early’s order.

After Buchanan settled, former trustee Pope became the sole defender of Brown’s estate plan. The Supreme Court ruled that Buchanan and Pope had been rightly removed as trustees because of “extreme discord” with family members, and on June 13, Judge Early issued an administrative order that booted Pope from further proceedings.

Given that the claimed children wanted to take $25 million from Brown’s charity for themselves, his companion wanted another $25 million, and Pope was insisting on DNA testing for Hynie’s son (who has refused), it is unclear how Pope and Buchanan might have avoided “extreme discord” with those who wanted to take more than Brown left them.

The appeal of Pope and Buchanan to the Supreme Court may have saved $50 million for the charity, but the case has been remanded—and at a status conference in May, attorneys for Hynie and the Brown children argued on behalf of another settlement deal.

Bauknight’s attorneys did not argue against them.

According to other pleadings, Pope’s defense of Brown’s estate plan has been costly. The time she devoted to Brown’s estate left her with little time for other clients, and lawsuits brought by Bauknight and grandson Forlando resulted in the loss of her malpractice insurance. She was accused by Bauknight’s attorneys of filing “fictional” pleadings, and the AG also made career-threatening claims against Buchanan and Pope, alleging they had committed a felony by overstating the value of Brown’s estate.

In Richland County, Pope is now the sole defendant in a multi-million dollar lawsuit brought by Bauknight, Hynie and the claimed Brown children. The suit, filed after Pope and Buchanan appealed the McMaster deal, charges that they damaged the estate during their 18-month service as trustees. In settlement of the suit, Buchanan paid no damages and was given the $500,000 he had been owed since 2009.

The suit against Pope continues in a Richland County Court, although AG Alan Wilson has asked to be removed as a party.

In pleadings filed in Richland County, Pope claims that in order to defend herself against the lawsuit, she needs to discuss the Hynie diary. According to a longtime friend of Brown’s, the diary shows Hynie was not Brown’s wife and she knew it, eliminating her spousal claim. Judge Early, however, has refused to lift 2008 gag orders that keep the diary under wraps, at the request of Hynie’s attorneys—who could receive more than $10 million if Hynie prevails. The attorney for some of the Brown children may receive as much as $9 million. Fees claimed by Bauknight’s attorneys have not been disclosed.

Attorneys for Hynie and the Brown children argued at the status conference for another settlement deal.

Without Pope to defend Brown’s estate plan—and with Bauknight’s fierce defense of those who want to take more than Brown left them—questions about the full funding of Brown’s charity, the “I Feel Good” Trust, are still unresolved.

So are questions about whether Pope will be allowed to defend herself against career-damaging allegations in the Richland County case by being given documents under FOIA.

Sue Summer

Sue Summer is a journalist from South Carolina. She has extensively covered the legal battle over James Brown's estate.

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