COLUMBIA, S.C. — James Brown's charitable trust had withered to just $14,000 and his estate was saddled with more than $20 million in debt before a professional money manager was able to turn it around, an attorney told The Associated Press.
Under a complex 2009 settlement, the manager took control of Brown's assets from the estate's trustees. That manager wiped out the crushing debt and paved the way for thousands of needy students to receive full college scholarships by next year from the charity by cutting deals that put the Godfather of Soul's music on national and international commercials for Chanel perfume and Gatorade.
The full details of that settlement and the dire condition of Brown's estate had previously been a mystery and were provided to the AP by David Black, an attorney for the money manager.
And now that deal – which gave about half of Brown's assets to the trust, a quarter to Brown's widow and young son, and the rest to his adult children – could be in jeopardy because the ousted trustees claim the deal should never have been approved and should be thrown out.
The deal brokered by then-South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster and approved by Circuit Judge Jack Early ended years of fighting among Brown's heirs, who came to realize no one would gain without an agreement. The disputes had started almost immediately after Brown died of heart failure on Christmas Day 2006.
But the trustees who'd been removed, Adele Pope and Robert Buchanan, argue in briefs filed to the South Carolina Supreme Court that the attorney general didn't have the authority to push through the settlement and want the whole thing thrown out. The court will hear arguments on the matter Tuesday.
The trustees argue they were not party to the negotiations that led up to the settlement, had opposed it, and were removed because of their opposition. The trustees' attorneys declined to comment beyond the court documents.
In their brief, lawyers for the attorney general's office argue the trustees hadn't conducted an appraisal of Brown's estate, had paid themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars from the sale of Brown's household and personal effects and claimed "$5 million in fees and want to scuttle a settlement so that the litigation will continue." Furthermore, McMaster was justified in getting involved because under state law he must look after those who might benefit from a charitable trust.
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 the summer of 2008, some of his possessions were auctioned off for $850,000, in part to pay for the debt. All agreed at the time that future income from music and movie royalties and the use of Brown's likeness was what remained at stake.
"Placing Pope and Buchanan back into power would be similar to throwing a grenade into the James Brown music empire," said David Black, an attorney for Russell Bauknight, the court-appointed special administrator and trustee for Brown's estate and the charitable trust. Bauknight has not commented on the status of the case since he was named in 2009, nor has he been paid for his work up to this point, Black said.
"We'd have to start from scratch."
Brown'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.
Arguments over his where the soul singer was going to be laid to rest resulted in his body being held in storage in its sealed gold casket inside his home for more than two months. He was eventually buried at one of his daughter's homes. Family members at the time said they wanted to build a shrine to Brown around his grave mimicking Elvis Presley's final resting place at Graceland in Tennessee.
The settlement appears to have smoothed over the rifts among family members. None has sued to overturn the agreement.
Black said Bauknight hired a professional music manager and has poured all proceeds from Brown's music to pay off the estate's major debt, a $26 million loan taken out by Brown that was supposed to be used to pay for a European tour. The final payment will be made seven years ahead of time by the end of 2011, Black said.
As yet, no payments have been made to any family members, Black said. Students in South Carolina and Georgia could start receiving scholarships by next year, Black said.
He said the family members favored the settlement because they found it to be fair, and because it is expected to generate even more revenue in the long term for the charitable trust.
"They believe the settlement provides a result that James Brown would have been proud of and they believe that the global settlement ending years of litigation, and preserving the charitable trust for needy school children, assures Mr. Brown's legacy," Black said.
Susanne M. Schafer can be reached at http://twitter.com/susannemarieap