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James Brown estate: The heart of the matter

By: Phillip Bantz//February 4, 2015

James Brown estate: The heart of the matter

By: Phillip Bantz//February 4, 2015

The part-time reporter and fulltime grandmother covering the messy litigation over James Brown’s estate has been fighting for public records since she began writing for her high school paper.

But it wasn’t until Sue Summer was 60 years old and semi-retired that she received her first subpoena, a journalistic badge of honor. Two others followed.

All three are connected to Summer’s relentless effort to understand why a former state attorney general meddled in Brown’s estate and whether the Godfather of Soul was legally married to his longtime companion, Tomi Rae Hynie, when he died in 2006.

Summer received her latest subpoena on Jan. 30 from Hynie, who identifies herself as Tommie Rae Brown in court filings, and her attorney, Robert Rosen of Charleston.

They wanted to force Summer to hand over her notes, emails, recordings, phone records and everything else she had pertaining to her reporting on Hynie. But the South Carolina Supreme Court quashed the subpoena on Monday, minutes before a circuit judge was slated to hold a hearing on the issue.

The Supreme Court held that requiring Summer to comply with the subpoena would violate the state’s Reporters’ Shield Law, which protects journalists from having to disclose their notes or reveal confidential sources.

Rosen served Summer with a similar subpoena in 2012, but it was withdrawn after she moved to quash.

Calling the most recent subpoena “blatantly illegal,” Summer’s attorneys, Jay Bender of Baker, Ravenel & Bender in Columbia and Thomas Pope III of Pope & Hudgens in Newberry, argued in their motion to quash that Hynie should have to pay Summer’s attorneys’ fees and legal costs.

“The subpoena to this journalist by Hynie is an attempt to intimidate the media and this Petitioner [Summer], and is an attempt to interfere with potential sources of information which is of vital importance to Petitioner and all journalists,” Bender and Pope added.

‘We don’t live in Iraq’

The Supreme Court will determine whether Summer is entitled to fees after the full court considers the case. It did, however, grant Summer’s motion to postpone a hearing in the lower court on a temporary restraining order that circuit Judge Doyet Early of Aiken issued against her.

The order prohibited Summer from publishing the contents of Hynie’s diary, though she already has posted the diary online and written an article about what it contains for The Newberry Observer. The Supreme Court also will address at a later date the validity of the restraining order and whether Early has jurisdiction over Summer, who resides in Newberry.

The two original trustees of Brown’s estate had distributed transcripts of Hynie’s diary among the parties in the Brown case, but in 2008 Early ordered that the documents be returned and placed gag orders on everyone who had read the writings.

“Some court may have to prove it, but the order’s still valid,” Rosen said, adding that the trustees improperly removed the diary from Brown’s home after he died.

“How would you feel if someone took your most personal thoughts and published them on the Internet?” he asked. “The press and reporters feel like they can report anything and there are no boundaries on it.”

Summer said she received an anonymous package containing the diary in January, days after Early ruled that Hynie and Brown were, in fact, legally married. Summer says the diary undermines Early’s ruling.

“Nobody was supposed to have a copy of that diary and somebody sent it to her,” Rosen said. “That somebody is in contempt of court. You can’t have a society in which judges issue orders and you don’t have to obey them. … We don’t live in Iraq. We live in America. We have a system of law.”

According to Summer, Hynie made more than 20 references in her diary about how she wanted Brown to marry her, writing: “If he doesn’t marry me … it will break my heart” and “I wouldn’t be the same grumpy old woman if he took me to the court house and made it right.”

“In one post the ‘diary’ records that Brown wanted to appear ‘single and ready to mingle,’ and he is quoted as saying, ‘I ain’t got no wife! You get nothing,’ ” Summer reported.

Summer believes that Hynie was already married to another man when she wedded Brown, which would invalidate their marriage. But Rosen contends that the other man already had a wife when he married Hynie, making her marriage with Brown legal.

AG ‘deeply involved’ in Brown case

Meanwhile, Summer has received a series of emails which she said prove that former state Attorney General Henry McMaster and his staff were “deeply involved” in a lawsuit against the two original trustees.

The Columbia law firm of Sweeny, Wingate & Barrow sued the trustees in 2010 on behalf of the attorney general’s office for damaging Brown’s estate. But current Attorney General Alan Wilson has asserted that his office never entered into a contract with the firm.

He had refused Summer’s request to publicly release emails in which the Wingate firm’s lawyers and attorneys for the trustees discussed filing suit. Wilson argued that sharing the emails would violate attorney-client privilege, an assertion that Circuit Judge Eugene Griffith of Newberry flatly rejected based on the attorney general’s involvement in the case.

“The emails make clear that three attorneys in the AG’s office were deeply involved for a period of several days in writing the contingency fee contract, and the AG reviewed the complaint,” Summer said. “He was listed as a plaintiff, even though he now says he was not a party.”

Brown intended for the bulk of his fortune to be used to create the “I Feel Good” scholarship trust for impoverished children in Georgia and South Carolina. But McMaster negotiated a settlement that gave more than half of the charity money to Brown’s relatives, including Hynie, after they challenged the will.

The state Supreme Court rejected the settlement after determining that McMaster overstepped his authority by getting involved in a private civil matter, but the court left intact a scholarship fund that McMaster created in the place of the “I Feel Good” trust called the “Legacy Trust.” No scholarships have been awarded from the trust since Brown’s death.

Follow Phillip Bantz on Twitter @SCLWBantz


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