COLUMBIA, S.C. >> A judge has ordered South Carolina’s attorney general to turn over documents to a freelance journalist investigating the court fight over the estate of soul singer James Brown.
Sue Summer wants to see the records, which include the diary of the woman who said she was Brown’s wife when he died in 2006, an appraisal of Brown’s assets, and documents about how much trustees and attorneys are being paid from Brown’s estate. She requested them under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
Earlier this month, Circuit Judge Eugene Griffith Jr. ruled against Attorney General Alan Wilson, who said he shouldn’t be forced to release the records because they are part of different lawsuits over Brown’s estate.
In his ruling, Griffith said Wilson’s position is “inconsistent with both the letter and spirit” of the state’s open records act, which only allows public records to be kept secret in very specific circumstances.
State prosecutors have asked Griffith to reconsider his ruling. The diary is already under a court order not to be released, and other documents the judge ruled should be made public have also been put off limits, Wilson said in court filings.
The judge’s order gives Wilson until early next week to turn the records over. He can argue some of them should be kept private under the law, but he will have to show them to Summer’s lawyer and the judge for a hearing.
Wilson said the process for his office to submit documents it thinks are confidential also doesn’t follow open records law.
In the reconsideration request, filed Wednesday, Wilson also asks the judge to delay the release of any documents for at least 30 days.
Summer said she was pleased with the order. She said part of the reason she keeps pursuing the story is she wants to make sure Brown’s dying wish to pay for scholarships for poor children in Aiken County and Augusta, Georgia, is done.
“It is past time for the secrecy that has surrounded the James Brown estate proceedings to come to an end. It is past time for the public to receive an answer to the question — after seven years, will Mr. Brown’s last wishes be honored in the State of South Carolina? The needy children Mr. Brown wanted to help with his education charity are waiting for an answer,” Summer said.
Wilson’s predecessor, Attorney General Henry McMaster, brokered a deal in 2009 to try to stop several lawsuits over the estate. It gave nearly half to a charitable trust, a quarter to his widow, Tomi Rae Hynie, and left the rest to be split among his adult children.
The state Supreme Court threw that settlement out last year, saying it ignored Brown’s wishes for most of his money to go to charity. The lawsuit was brought by the original trustees of Brown’s estate. But the justices also ruled they shouldn’t be let back into the estate because they managed it so poorly. The dispute remains in court, nearly eight years after the Godfather of Soul died on Christmas Day 2006.
The former backup singer for Brown fought with the estate for years after the singer’s lawyers said their marriage was annulled because she was still married to another man when she and Brown exchanged vows. The settlement approved after the trustees were booted included an agreement that Brown and Hynie’s marriage was legitimate.
Summer also said no one has any idea what Brown’s estate is worth. A professional manager who took control of Brown’s assets after McMaster’s deal said he wiped out more than $20 million in debt Brown borrowed for a European comeback tour right before his death by cutting deals that put Brown’s music on national and international commercials for products like Chanel perfume and Gatorade.
Summer thinks that the manager’s work was vastly inflated. In their decision, the state Supreme Court said it had no idea what Brown’s estate is now worth — giving estimates from $5 million to more than $100 million.