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November 1, 2012

Long-brewing accusations fly late in race for probate seat

CULLMAN — On the surface, Cullman County’s race for probate judge — this year’s only local contest to field candidates from each of the two major parties — has been a civil affair. But those close to both candidates’ camps have been forecasting a gathering political storm for a long time.

In the months ahead of the March party primaries, and in the runup to next week’s general election, any genuinely strident political acrimony between the candidates — Democratic incumbent Leah Patterson Lust and Republican challenger Tammy Brown — had only surfaced in secondhand personal anecdotes; in internet postings; in rumor.

No more. Lust officially went on the attack last week, launching a website through her campaign committee pummeling Brown over her alleged handling of a 2007 trusteeship, created out of the will of a deceased Cullman County man, while serving under Lust as chief clerk in the probate office. A mass mailout directing voters to the website hit local mailboxes Wednesday.

Brown said Thursday she was “saddened” that a local family’s financial and medical matters had become fodder for what she described as a partisan attack, and said she had acted in good faith and with a clear conscience at every turn as she administered the trust.

“I’m going to hold my head up high, and all I ask is that, if people want to know about the case, I’m available to discuss it one-on-one,” said Brown. “I’ve tried throughout this campaign to make myself publicly available, and my phone number is 256-531-8347. The current elected official in that office had even commended me, on one occasion, that I was doing a good job in handling this trust. That estate has been closed and settled, and I have never understood why she has wanted to make this, of all things, an issue. It never was an issue, until I left employment in the probate office in July of 2009.”

Beyond that, Brown declined to comment publicly on the specifics of the case’s history, saying she believes answering Lust’s accusations point-by-point at this late stage would lend credibility to the attack, and would detract from larger issues informing voters’ decision when they elect Cullman County’s next probate judge on Nov. 6.

“I’m simply not going to go to that level,” she said. “There’s a certain level of integrity you have to maintain when you run for office, or when you are elected to an office, and that is what I am trying to maintain, both as a candidate and if I am elected. If a family member wants to discuss an estate issue in this kind of a forum, they are welcome to. But I am seeking an elected office, and I am not going to allow this family’s case to be reduced to a talking point just so I can get elected.”

The website, sponsored by the Campaign to Re-elect Leah Patterson Lust, all but accuses Brown of outright theft, alleging she illegally and secretly paid herself the interest accrued in a $50,000 fund held in a trust set aside out of a deceased resident’s will, which was filed in the probate office in 2007. The trust was created to pay care expenses for an incapacitated survivor of the will’s namesake at the Hanceville Nursing Home, under the supervision of Brown, who was designated by the probate office as trustee over the patient’s account.

Lust was then in the first year of her current term as probate judge; Brown was serving under Lust as chief clerk in the probate office.

Under the trust agreement, Brown as trustee was not at liberty to receive compensation for administering the patient’s funds out of the trust. But Lust alleges that Brown did just that by writing herself three checks totaling $2,370.35. The first — and largest — of the three checks was written for $2,267.93 in April of 2009. The last check was written for $17.34 in August of the same year.

The $2,370.35 represents the interest accrued on the $50,000 placed in the trust account — interest money that Sharon Walker, sister to the deceased man and the personal representative designated in his will, said she felt Brown should be paid as compensation for her efforts in overseeing the trust. The trust agreement, filed in April of 2007, did not allow for the trustee over the account to receive any payment whatsoever.

Brown paid the money back, writing a $2,370.35 check in Jan. 2010 that was placed in the trust account overseen by the patient’s Guardian ad Litem attorney. Brown said Thursday she repaid the funds not because she felt she’d erred in accepting the money, but because she began to see that the matter had the potential to become a political football, and the hassle just wasn’t worth a couple of thousand dollars in payment for services rendered.

“Once I left my position in the probate office...I contacted Ms. Walker and said, ‘This is not worth it — it’s not worth it to you, and to your family, to put you through this, and I’m not going to keep this money,’” Brown explained. “Sharon [Walker] said, ‘Yes, you are,’ but I told her, ‘No — we’re going to the Guardian ad Litem, and we are going to pay this back. If this is going to become an issue for someone to try to use against me, I’m not going to let it get out of hand for your family to have to deal with.’”

Lust maintains there was more to it than that.

“The primary function of the judge is to follow the law, and in this very situation, Tammy Brown exhibited that she did not follow the law — she had turned the situation to her benefit,” Lust said. “Reviewing the Alabama Uniform Trust Code, it’s very clear to me — there are three main points regarding a trust such as the one that pertains to this case. To paraphrase, the trust must have a legal purpose, as opposed to something illegal. Trustees must operate in good faith and for the benefit of the trust. And, trustees must operate in good faith and for the interest of the beneficiary.

“By diverting funds to herself, she [Brown] was not operating in good faith. She was not operating for the purposes of the trust — the trust did not exist to give Tammy Brown money. And she was not operating in the interest of the beneficiary, but rather for her own interest.”

Walker said Thursday she had wanted Brown to receive some compensation for the time and trouble she expended overseeing the fund as its trustee, a desire she said moved her to amend the original trust agreement in April of 2009 so that Brown could legally receive the interest that accrued on the trust account as her payment.

But Lust said Thursday the trust was never amended; that the parties never approached her or a circuit judge to have the trust altered, and that and the document purporting to amend the agreement was never filed.

“It would take an order from a judge to have any part of that trust agreement amended. There was never a petition filed requesting that the trust be amended, neither in probate court nor in circuit court,” Lust said.

“I hate it for the people of Cullman County that the probate judge’s race has come to this,” said Brown. “It’s a very low-resorting campaign tactic, and I feel it’s a last-minute effort on the part of the current elected official to try to be re-elected. There are many important things a probate judge must do, and I have spent my career in that office learning every aspect of the many roles a probate judge must play in the lives of citizens; of families. In my campaign, I’ve kept my message positive and stayed focused on those issues from day one, and I am not going to change that now.”

Lust and Brown will field questions today at a forum event sponsored by The Cullman Times and the Cullman Area Chamber of Commerce. The forum begins with lunch at 11:30 a.m. Introductions of the candidates will begin at 11:55 on the third floor of the restaurant. The event will be held in the third floor banquet room of the All Steak restaurant in Cullman. Questions will be asked by Brian Lacy, representing the chamber of commerce, and The Times Editor David Palmer.

Benjamin Bullard can be reached by e-mail at bbullard@cullmantimes.com or by telephone at 734-2131 ext. 270.

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