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Current Trustee In James Brown Estate Refuses Mandate to Serve With Other Trustees

At a May 29 status conference related to the controversial estate of music legend James Brown, Judge Doyet Early of Aiken vowed to rule the proceedings with a “firm hand.”

The first test of that firmness may be whether he appoints three trustees for the estate, as mandated by the will and trust documents of James Brown–or whether Judge Early allows current trustee Russell Bauknight to serve as sole trustee.

On Sept. 4 five applicants were interviewed by Judge Early for fiduciary positions with the estate. During the interview of Bauknight, a Columbia CPA, he announced he will refuse to serve if other fiduciaries are appointed.

In May the Supreme Court overturned a 2009 settlement deal by former Attorney General (AG) Henry McMaster, and the James Brown estate was remanded to Judge Early for further proceedings. In the Supreme Court opinion, Judge Early was directed to “appoint fiduciaries … in accordance with the provisions for succession outlined in Brown’s trust and estate documents.”

Brown’s estate documents require the appointment of three trustees to manage his music empire for the benefit of the “I Feel Good” Trust, an education charity for needy children in South Carolina and Georgia. Also to be funded by the music empire was a $2 million education trust for some of Brown’s grandchildren.

The McMaster deal gave away over half of Brown’s world-wide music empire to those Brown had excluded from inheriting it—and gave to the Attorney General the power of appointing trustees. Instead of the three trustees required by Brown’s estate documents, McMaster appointed only Bauknight, who served almost four years “at the pleasure” of McMaster and current AG Alan Wilson. On May 8 the Supreme Court voided Bauknight’s appointment but allowed him to re-apply.

During the Sept. 4 hearing in Columbia, Bauknight announced he would refuse to serve as a co-fiduciary. He said, “I’ve done a very good job with the team I’ve put together…for this estate and trust, it’s not appropriate to appoint other fiduciaries at this time.”

During his interview, Bauknight listed 27 things he had accomplished to improve the assets of the estate. He then said he would determine when the time was right to transition to three fiduciaries, and he would bring to the Court a plan for that transition.

In addition to Bauknight, Judge Early interviewed four other applicants for positions with the James Brown estate–one with a Newberry connection.

*Neal Dickert, Augusta attorney and former judge, practices law in both South Carolina and Georgia, the two states Brown intended to benefit from his charity. As both attorney and judge, Dickert has handled many will challenges. He said that based on his reading of the Supreme Court opinion, the estate needs action regarding the validity of the will, the issue of whether Brown was married, and the question of paternity. “If the Court thinks I can help, I’d be willing to do whatever I can to assist,” he said. Dickert has written for the Continuing Legal Education program in Georgia and is a member of the Georgia Academy of Mediators and Arbitrators. He is a native of Newberry, South Carolina.

*David Sojourner, Columbia attorney, was asked by Bauknight to become involved in the Brown estate after Bauknight’s attorneys advised him of a possible conflict of interest. Sojourner has agreed to accept a position with the estate under two conditions: his work would be limited to defending the estate plan, and his firm would be retained to do the legal work on that matter. “I have no interest in being a full trustee,” he said.

*William “Bill” Grooms, Columbia CPA, said his years of experience with the IRS and his expertise in taxation would be helpful to the estate. “I have a high opinion of Russell Bauknight and his skills. It would be my pleasure to work with Russell Bauknight.”

*Scott Keniley, Atlanta attorney, was elected to the Board of Governors for the Recording Academy (Grammy) and serves on its education committee. He has expertise in entertainment law and intellectual property, and he said he could help to protect the music assets—and to maximize their growth. He said, “I like the concept that this was left to education… it could be the greatest education bequest of all time.”

Judge Early said attorneys may file objections to any applicant within 10 days, and he will make a decision within 20 days. A sixth applicant, Rev. Larry Fryer of Augusta, Ga., will be interviewed Sept. 11.

The McMaster deal was appealed to the Supreme Court by former trustees, Adele Pope of Newberry and Robert Buchanan of Aiken. Since Bauknight’s appointment, he has aggressively advanced the interests of those who challenged Brown’s estate plan.

Bauknight sued the former trustees who appealed the McMaster settlement deal. He asked the Court not to lift gag orders on a document that could disprove the claim of Brown’s companion to be his wife. Also, he asked to intervene in Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits to prevent the release of public documents: the contingency fee contract under which former trustees were sued; the Legacy Trust as created by McMaster; and documents that set the at-death valuation of Brown’s estate at $4.7 million.

James Brown’s estate earned $10 million in 2011, the last year for which Bauknight filed an accounting, according to previous filings. All fiduciaries before Bauknight valued Brown’s music empire at between $80 and $100 million, and shortly before the McMaster deal was struck, a $100 million offer was made on the music assets.

In overturning the McMaster settlement, the Supreme Court returned the James Brown estate case to Judge Early for further proceedings. At the May 29 status conference, attended by over 50 attorneys and interested parties, Judge Early read excerpts from the Supreme Court decision, which described the McMaster settlement deal as a “dismemberment” of Brown’s estate plan.

Judge Early then vowed he would manage the proceedings with a “firm hand,” requiring high standards of proof for all claims and following the “roadmap” provided by the Supreme Court.

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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