COLUMBIA, S.C. – Trustees who say they were unjustly removed from the charitable trust of the late soul singer James Brown urged South Carolina's Supreme Court on Tuesday to strike down the estate settlement.
The justices questioned an attorney for former trustees Adele Pope and Robert Buchanan about their contention that then-South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster didn't have the authority to push through the deal that ended years of fighting among Brown's heirs. Pope and Buchanan asked that the settlement be reorganized by a lower court.
The dispute began shortly after the Godfather of Soul died of heart failure on Christmas Day 2006 at age 73. The performer's death touched off years of bizarre headlines, beginning with his widow Tomi Rae Hynie being locked out of his 60-acre estate and photographers capturing her sobbing and shaking its iron gates, begging to be let in.
McMaster, who ultimately brokered a settlement in 2009, said the dispute over the estate would have continued without his intervention. Half a dozen of Brown's adult children had bickered for years after their father's death before agreeing to the settlement. They said they support the deal and want the litigation to end so that the trust can be put to its intended use: funding education for needy children in South Carolina and Georgia.
But Pope and Buchanan, who were removed as trustees by a circuit judge who approved the deal, sued over the 2009 deal.
That complex settlement gave about half of Brown's assets to an education fund for needy children, a quarter to his widow and young son and the rest to his adult children, arguing that they were not party to the negotiations that led up to the settlement and were removed because of their opposition.
"The attorney general has absolutely no authority to step into litigation and purport to sign settlement agreements," said James Richardson, an attorney for Pope and Buchanan.
Richardson argued that the judge who approved the McMaster plan was misinformed over what role the state's chief prosecutor should play in such cases.
Under McMaster's deal, a professional manager took control of Brown's assets from the estate's trustees, wiping out crushing debt — more than $20 million Brown had borrowed for a European comeback tour — and opening the way for thousands of needy students to receive full college scholarships. The plan allowed a financial manager to cut lucrative deals that put Brown's music on national and international commercials for such products as Chanel perfume and Gatorade.
Brown was renowned for making famous hundreds of iconic musical works including hits like "I Feel Good" and "A Man's World" and known internationally for his flashy performances and dynamic stage presence. But years of drug problems and financial mismanagement caused his estate to dwindle.
At the time of the settlement, the exact value of Brown's assets was not made public and attorneys said his accounts had little money in them. In 2008, some of his possessions were auctioned for $850,000, in part to pay down debt, and all agreed future income from music and movie royalties and the use of Brown's highly marketable likeness was what remained at stake.
The attorney general's office argued in court filings that Pope and Buchanan hadn't conducted a proper appraisal of Brown's estate. It also claimed the two had paid themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars from the sale of Brown's household and personal effects and claimed $5 million in fees. They also said McMaster was justified in getting involved because he must look after those who might benefit from a charitable trust under state law.
But the justices grilled Assistant Attorney General Sonny Jones about the top prosecutor's authority to upstage the court-appointed trustees, Pope and Buchanan.
McMaster said after the hearing that he stuck by the settlement, adding it meant royalties would be put to immediate benefit of providing scholarships.
"We believed the settlement was a very good one for ... the education of the poor children, because there was a danger that they would get nothing," said McMaster, who first saw Brown perform in 1960 and came to know him in later years. "He was a remarkable and generous man. ... He will educate thousands of children because we were able to protect this trust."
It could take months for the justices to rule.
One of Brown's daughters, Deanna Brown Thomas, said his children hope for a swift end to the litigation, which also has delayed the family's plans to build a shrine to Brown like Elvis Presley's Graceland.
She added the children agreed to a settlement
because of their father's commitment to children and their education, despite only finishing seventh grade himself.
Reach Kinnard at http://www.twitter.com/MegKinnardAP