When the judges responsible for distributing the estate of the late musician James Brown started refusing freedom of information requests from the estate’s former trustees last year, a 60-year-old, semi-retired freelance reporter named Sue Summer wondered why. She started reporting on the squabbles over Brown’s estate for her local paper, the Newberry Observer, when she wasn’t caring for her granddaughter. In the year since her first story ran, Summer believes the attorney general—and therefore the state—has attempted to stop her digging three times, culminating in an extremely broad subpoena issued last month that lists the attorney general as a plaintiff. It requests that she turn over all her on- and off-the-record material pertaining to the case.
This latest subpoena comes after the Facebook page Summer made to document her reporting was taken down after she published a piece in March detailing seven ways Attorney General Alan Wilson allegedly violated the Freedom Of Information Act, she told CJR. (The page has since been reinstated.) In May, Summer received her first subpoena, from the lawyers of a woman called Tommie Rae Hynie, who claims she was married to James Brown at the time of his death. The subpoena specifically demanded all of Summer’s reporting on Hynie’s diary, which is seen as key to the case. The newest subpoena, issued on behalf of Brown’s children, was served on August 22, with a deadline of October 26.
“This is the third attempt to make me go away,” said Summer, who believes the subpoenas are being issued to scare her off the case. “They want me to hush very quickly.”
Brown died on Christmas Day, 2006, leaving behind strict instructions about how his estate should be distributed. He intended for most of his money to go towards founding the “I Feel Good” trust, which would provide scholarships to needy children in South Carolina and Georgia. He also made provisions for six of his children—he may have as many as 12—and asked that a family education trust be held for seven designated grandchildren. He left nothing to Hynie.
But when one of the three trustees chosen by Brown to enact his wishes was accused of siphoning off millions of dollars from the trust in November 2007, then-South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster intervened to appoint new ones. McMaster himself drew up a settlement deal called the Legacy Trust in 2009, which reduced the funding for Brown’s “I Feel Good” charity. When McMaster refused FOI requests from former trustees to release the details of the Legacy Trust and information on how the estate was valued in August 2011, Summer first became interested in the case.
McMaster also redirected some 23.5 percent of Brown’s estate to Hynie. Part of Summer’s reporting included two unnamed sources who confirmed that Hynie was already married when she exchanged vows with Brown and that she knew her marriage to the singer was a sham.
“These stories don’t just drop off a tree in your backyard!” Summer said. “I live in a small town. I write for the Newberry Magazine, I write for the paper, I host a radio show, and the fact that it came here… wouldn’t you have wanted to do it?”
When Summer was served with her second subpoena in August, she said that she felt she was missing a part of the story—why would the state make repeated efforts to discourage her from publicizing the case? She took a closer look at the attorney general Alan Wilson’s re-election campaign contributions from July (Wilson took over from McMaster as attorney general last year). Two coincidences caught her eye.
On the day of Summer’s subpoena hearing in May, Wilson—who is responsible for deciding the final distribution of the estate—received election campaign contributions from a law firm who have hired private practice lawyers to secure Tommie Rae Hynie a share. (Wilson did not respond to a request for comment.) Summer also discovered that one of Hynie’s two high-powered attorneys teaches law at the University of South Carolina where McMaster has worked as a fundraiser since finishing his AG term.
“It certainly raises an eyebrow,” Summer said. “As a matter of fact, Wilson was on a bus tour promoting transparency in government on the very day that I was issued a subpoena by his lawyer.”
Lou Ann Anderson, a journalist in Texas who founded estateofdenial.com in 2007 to document probate cases in the courts, told CJR that the Brown case looks particularly bad on the state. “The idea that assets appear to be being diverted from intended beneficiaries and have been rediverted to unintended parties or outside parties, i.e. the lawyers—that happens regularly. The fact that this is all being orchestrated by a state government—that is unusual,” Anderson said.
“This AG office appears to be helping to finance a certain number of lawyers who are then going out and hiring private practice lawyers to pursue this. We say ‘appears,’ because with them being unwilling to comply with these FOI requests, we can’t know. They really are looking to have their cake and eat it. They don’t want to comply with this, but at the same time they’re targeting this reporter, wanting her to give up her rights,” Anderson said.
The Newberry Observer is not offering Summer legal counsel at this time. She is being represented by the South Carolina Press Association. Summer, the only journalist in South Carolina reporting on the case, fears that weakened regional newsrooms mean fewer resources are available to keep state governments in check.
“After a year, after seeing the violations of the Freedom Of Information Act, after seeing what they’ve tried to do to the Shield Law, the one thing that I am convinced of at this point is that the traditional watchdog of the FOIA has always been newspapers,” Summer said. “But we are now in such a weakened position, I don’t know that we can fulfill that function as well as we did in the past, and I’m concerned about that. There was a time when I would have been fighting to get a little piece of this story.”
Summer’s lawyer has issued a letter stating that she is protected from the subpoena under the Shield Law, which gives reporters the right to refuse to testify. They have not had any response. Summer said she will continue to report on the case.
Hazel Sheffield is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @hazelsheffield.