COLUMBIA — South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson has asked a lawyer representing his office to cancel a subpoena against a freelance reporter who is covering the office’s handling of the late soul singer James Brown’s estate.
Sue Summer was served in August with the legal document requiring her to turn over her notes, emails, audio recordings and any other information relating to more than a dozen people involved in the will for Brown, who died in December 2006. The subpoena was issued by Mark Gende, a private attorney who is doing legal work for Wilson’s office.
Summer had been planning to fight the subpoena under South Carolina’s Shield Law, which is meant to protect reporters and their sources from being revealed in court and to prevent reporters from having to turn over unpublished information.
A spokesman for Wilson said he made his decision Tuesday after questions from The Associated Press.
“The attorney general fully supports the shield law, therefore we disagree with the subpoena being issued and strongly suggested it be rescinded,” said Bryan Stirling, a spokesman for Wilson.
Wilson’s office made the request to Gende after the close of regular business hours Tuesday. Gende did not immediately respond to a telephone message left at his law firm.
Summer has suggested the subpoena came in retaliation because of her fight with Wilson’s office over documents she requested through the Freedom of Information Act. She also suggested South Carolina’s previous attorney general, Henry McMaster, overreached his authority when he brokered a deal over the estate.
Stirling said his office wouldn’t talk any further about pending litigation. The deal over Brown’s estate is currently before the South Carolina Supreme Court.
Summer said Tuesday she would have called Wilson’s office and thanked the attorneys herself if they were still taking her calls.
“I am grateful that the attorney general thinks the Shield Law is important in South Carolina,” Summer said.
The subpoena was first reported by the weekly newspaper The Columbia Free Times and also was written about in the Columbia Journalism Review.
McMaster stepped into the estate dispute after Brown’s children and others had bickered for over two years about his will and whether he was actually married to the woman who claimed she was his wife when he died. The deal gave about half of Brown’s assets to a charitable trust, a quarter to Brown’s widow and young son, and the rest to his adult children.
But the two trustees who were overseeing the estate before a judge removed them sued over the settlement, saying McMaster’s office did not have the authority to take over the estate.
After the state Supreme Court heard arguments in the suit last year, McMaster said a professional money manager who took over Brown’s estate managed to pay off more than $20 million the singer borrowed for a European comeback tour, getting rid of the debt and opening the way for thousands of needy students to receive full college scholarships through the trust.
Summer said her reporting has suggested those numbers are inflated and she swore to her sources she would protect them if they talked to her.
“They went out on a limb because they care so much about Mr. Brown and his will that they want it carried out the way he wrote it,” she said. “This is about taking private property and redistributing it according to your wishes instead of the person who earned it.”
Summer said she also felt a responsibility to all reporters in South Carolina to make sure the state’s Shield Law remained strong.
“It would be a disservice to every reporter in the state if I didn’t do this,” Summer said.