Suit Tangles Issue of James Brown’s Estate
By LYNNLEY BROWNING
Martial Trezzini, via Associated Press
Trustee of James Brown's estate are suing his managers.
He called himself the “hardest-working man in show business,” and now, even in death, there is little peace for James Brown.
Mr. Brown’s estate was already the subject of a raft of lawsuits and squabbling involving his children, grandchildren, children whose paternity has been asserted but not yet proved, three wives and a companion who says she was his fourth wife.
Now, a lawsuit filed Tuesday by two court-appointed trustees of his estate accuses his longtime business managers, including a retired judge, of stealing millions of dollars from Mr. Brown. The suit, filed in South Carolina state court, also accuses the law firm of Greenberg Traurig, one of its lawyers, and a South Carolina bank of breach of fiduciary duty, negligence and conspiracy to defraud the legendary soul singer.
Full of drama, the legal wrangling could be straight out of Mr. Brown’s turbulent life, reflected in songs that revolved around women, alcohol and the blues. He sold millions of records in a career that began in the 1950s and included hits like “I Got You (I Feel Good),” “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “Hot Pants.”
With his trademark pompadour, flashy suits and fancy footwork, he maintained a constant touring schedule up until his death on Christmas Day in 2006. He spent lavishly on cars and clothes. But with royalties and other income from his many songs, he left an estate that may have been worth tens of millions of dollars, though the current value is unclear.
The lawsuit is seeking to recover the lost money as well as damages.
The lawsuit filed by the two trustees of Mr. Brown’s estate, Adele J. Pope and Robert L. Buchanan Jr., both lawyers, focuses on one of the three former managers, David G. Cannon, accusing him of siphoning at least $10 million since 1999.
The complaint also states that Mr. Cannon may have forged Mr. Brown’s signature to obtain a 40 percent interest in royalties from the James Brown dancing doll, an interest worth $95,000.
Mr. Cannon, who was Mr. Brown’s accountant and business manager beginning around 1991, worked with Albert H. Dallas, Mr. Brown’s personal lawyer since around 1984, and Alfred A. Bradley, a former South Carolina magistrate judge. Mr. Bradley became a trustee of Mr. Brown’s will, shared power of attorney over his affairs and wrote liner notes to at least one of his albums. Both Mr. Dallas and Mr. Bradley, who along with Mr. Cannon were trustees of Mr. Brown’s estate until late last year, were named as defendants in the suit.
Mr. Bradley’s involvement with Mr. Brown apparently began in 1990, when he served as Mr. Brown’s prison work-release program “sponsor.” Mr. Brown had spent 15 months in a South Carolina jail and 10 months on a work-release program after a 1988 run-in with the police that culminated in a car chase across two states.
Mr. Cannon resigned in August 2007 as a trustee of Mr. Brown’s will after complaints of mismanagement from Mr. Brown’s heirs. Last November, a South Carolina state judge ordered him to repay around $350,000 to the estate, which he did. Calls to Mr. Cannon, in Barnwell, S.C., were not returned.
In November, after renewed complaints, a South Carolina state judge removed Mr. Bradley and Mr. Dallas as trustees, and appointed Ms. Pope and Mr. Buchanan in their place.
Calls to Mr. Dallas, in Thomson, Ga., and to Mr. Bradley, in Aiken, S.C., were not returned.
The lawsuit also accuses Enterprise Bank of failing to prevent the former business managers from mismanaging funds through accounts held there. Also, the suit says that Greenberg Traurig and one of its lawyers, Joel A. Katz, worked with the three to rake in excessive fees and commissions.
An official at Enterprise Bank said the bank had not seen the complaint and declined to comment.
Mr. Brown earned gross revenues of around $5 million a year from concerts and touring, the complaint said. His latest will was drawn up around 2000 by H. Dewain Herring, a Columbia, S.C., lawyer who is now serving 30 years for the 2006 murder of a strip club employee.
Some of Mr. Brown’s heirs hope to turn his estate in Beech Island, S.C., into a lucrative Graceland-style tourist mecca. His songs also continue to produce royalties.
The bulk of Mr. Brown’s estate was held in a trust and in James Brown Enterprises, which was controlled by Mr. Cannon, according to the lawsuit.
The complaint says that Mr. Cannon received an “exorbitant” fee of $4.9 million for helping Mr. Brown sell $26 million worth of “Pullman” bonds in 1999 that were based on his future royalty income. The bonds are named for a New York financier, David Pullman, who pioneered them for entertainers like David Bowie and Marvin Gaye.
About $10 million of the proceeds were invested in an account at Morgan Stanley that was controlled by Mr. Cannon.
That money is now largely gone, the complaint said, because Mr. Cannon siphoned it off to himself, to entities he controlled and to his fellow trustees.
Lawyers for the two current trustees who sued the former business managers declined to comment on Thursday.
The complaint also says that the three former business managers worked with Mr. Katz, who was Mr. Brown’s lawyer at Greenberg Traurig for about three decades, to try to refinance the bonds in 2005 through a loan from the Royal Bank of Scotland.
The deal would have generated fees of at least $2.7 million for the managers and lawyer — who charged Mr. Brown from $800 to $900 an hour — but would ultimately have cost Mr. Brown around $5 million, the suit says, and was not advantageous to him. The proposal fell apart in 2006 after a lawsuit against the managers.
In a written statement, Jill Perry, a spokeswoman for Greenberg Traurig, said: “James Brown never indicated to Joel Katz that he was unhappy with any legal services that Joel or our firm provided. We are confident that, when the true facts are presented, it will be clear that the plaintiffs’ claims are without merit.”
Greenberg Traurig has been in the news before. From 2001 through early 2004, the law firm employed Jack Abramoff as a top Republican lobbyist and power broker in its Washington office. Mr. Abramoff is serving six years in a prison after his conviction in 2006 on fraud charges stemming from a corruption scandal.
In separate legal proceedings, Tomi Rae Hynie, a former backup singer who says that she was Mr. Brown’s fourth wife when he died and is the mother of his young child, James J. Brown II, is making a claim to half of Mr. Brown’s estate.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company