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SC: Attorney General Denies Bringing Lawsuit Against Former James Brown Trustees

Attorney General (AG) Alan Wilson has denied that he brought a 2010 multi-million dollar lawsuit against former James Brown trustees, Adele Pope of Newberry and Robert Buchanan of Aiken.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on Dec. 20, 2013, Attorney General Wilson claimed, “the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office was not a party” to the case, known as Richland 4900.

The letter also says about the contract under which the lawsuit was filed: “Further, the agreement…was between Russell Bauknight, who was not an agent for the South Carolina Attorney General at any time, and Sweeny, Wingate and Barrow, P.A.”

In making this claim, the Attorney General contradicts three years of court filings.

The caption in a lawsuit presents basic information, such as who are the plaintiffs and who are the defendants. In the original caption of Richland 4900, Henry Dargan McMaster “in his capacity as Attorney General of the State of South Carolina” is listed as a Plaintiff. Russell Bauknight, in addition to representing various others, is also listed as a Plaintiff “on behalf of Henry Dargan McMaster, in his capacity as Attorney General of the State of South Carolina.”

After Alan Wilson became Attorney General, his name was substituted for McMaster’s in later pleadings.

Among the other plaintiffs in Richland 4900 are several Brown children who contested the will and companion Tomirae Hynie, who claimed to be Brown’s spouse even though she was married to another man when she and Brown exchanged vows in 2001.

Assistant attorney general Adam Whitsett, in a letter dated Dec. 9, 2013, claimed the Attorney General had no copy of the Wingate contract until it was released by a federal court in another lawsuit: “Further, be advised we only recently received a signed version of this contract after a federal magistrate made it a public document.”

For over three years in three courts–at untold taxpayer expense–the Attorney General vigorously fought to prevent the release of the contract under FOIA. No South Carolina court has yet required the Attorney General to release the Wingate contract, but a federal judge ruled in October that the contract was a public document because of the involvement of the Attorney General. The now-released contract contains this clause in Article III-F: “This Agreement shall be considered a public document.”

In September 2011, the Attorney General agreed that the contract was a public document, and he evidently was in possession of a copy. After the document was requested under FOIA, assistant deputy Attorney General C.H. Jones Jr. wrote to Judge Casey Manning on Sept. 22, 2011: “The Office (of Attorney General) is ready and more than willing to provide the document at this time.”

Jones then asked Manning for guidance about whether releasing the document would violate a stay order in 4900. A stay had been requested by a Wingate attorney, but none was granted in the final written order.

The office of the Attorney General has been a presence at all hearings in 4900 attended by this reporter, and at no time has the Attorney General’s office asked for a correction in the caption or suggested that the Attorney General was not a Plaintiff in the lawsuit.

In March 2013 the Attorney General filed a motion, asking to be dropped as a party from 4900. He made the request after the Supreme Court overturned a settlement deal worked by former Attorney General McMaster, which the Court called a “dismemberment” of Brown’s “noble” estate plan. Under Brown’s estate plan, his music empire was left to an education charity for needy students in South Carolina and Georgia, the “I Feel Good” Trust. The McMaster settlement gave away over half of Brown’s music empire to those who contested his will. All the will contestants are listed as plaintiffs in Richland 4900, along with Bauknight and the Attorney General.

The release of the Wingate contract showed that it was not signed by any of the Plaintiffs but by their attorneys, who stood to be paid about $20 million in legal fees if the settlement deal had not been overturned.

The Wingate contract is clearly a contingency fee contract, and to date the Plaintiffs have received nothing in the lawsuit. Even so, the Wingate firm was paid over a half-million dollars from the Brown estate in December of 2012. The Attorney General claims not have any addendum that would have allowed the $563,000 Wingate payment. The payment was made even though the Plaintiffs in Richland 4900 fell into default three years ago when the Wingate firm failed to answer a filing on time.

Requests under FOIA for the Wingate contract date back to July of 2011. The Jones letter is clear that the contract was in possession of the Attorney General in September 2011, but the Whitsett letter of 2013 suggests the contract has since been handed off to Bauknight. According to the letter: “documents or materials of any kind” in the files of Russell Bauknight or his attorneys are “not subject to a FOIA request sent to the Attorney General’s office.”

Despite Wilson’s claim in the letter, documents used by a public official are subject to FOIA.

Mark Plowden, communications director for the Attorney General, was sent an email asking who authorized the removal of the contract from the Attorney General’s office and on what date.

No response has been received as of Monday evening.

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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Categories: Courts & Law, Government Transparency
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