Saddled by debt, James Brown estate now thriving, still contested


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The late James Brown once warned the world: ‘Papa don’t take no mess.’

So one might assume that Brown -- the Steve Jobs-slash-Albert-Einstein-slash-Benjamin-Franklin of funk (that’s right Isaacson, we’re paging you!) -- would be pleased with news from the Associated Press that a professional money manager has been able to take the atrophied remnants of Brown’s charitable trust and effect a remarkable turnaround, wiping more than $20 million in debt off the books and putting it in a position to fund thousands of college scholarships to poor students. The credit goes to a series of canny licensing deals.


But that arrangement may now be in peril due to a challenge from two ousted trustees, Adele Pope and Robert Buchanan, who have filed a brief with the South Carolina Supreme Court that might be best summed up in the lyrics to Brown’s 1973 hit ‘The Payback, Pt. 1’:

‘I can dig rappin’... I can dig scrappin’. But I can’t dig that backstabbin’!’

Pope and Buchanan argue that a deal that put the estate in the hands of money manager David Black, should be thrown out because they were not involved in the negotiations and were pushed out of the way because they opposed it.

The deal had been overseen by the state attorney general at the time, Henry McMaster, who was trying to smooth over squabbling over the estate among family members after Brown’s death in 2006.

The deal appears to have appeased the family, if not the ousted trustees. The AP’s Susanne M. Schafer reports that half of Brown’s assets now go to the trust, a quarter goes to his widow and her young son, and the rest goes to Brown’s grown children.

In court documents, lawyers for the attorney general’s office argue that the trustees failed to appraise Brown’s estate, paid themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars from the estate, and claimed $5 million in fees.

Brown’s finances were as tangled in life as they were in death. His entanglements with the IRS made Willie Nelson look like an H&R Block franchisee.

The court is set to hear arguments in the case on Tuesday.


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