Montgomery County Circuit Judge Greg Griffin appointed a special master on Tuesday to investigate alleged self-dealing and corruption surrounding the Mabel Amos Trust Fund.
Griffin appointed retired Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Charles Price as special master. He also appointed James White Sr., a certified public accountant from Birmingham, to examine the trust fund’s accounts and records.
Allen Dodd, an appointed Deputy Alabama Attorney General, said in a hearing in Montgomery County Circuit Court that the state, the fund’s board members, and the trust fund's trustee Region Banks were close to reaching a settlement.
The fund's board members are John Bell, Rick Clifton, and Alabama Ethics Commission executive director Tom Albritton.
Price served on the Alabama Ethics Commission from September 2015 to August 2020. Albritton was hired as executive director in February 2015.
Amos was Alabama Secretary of State from 1967 to 1975. She died in 1999. Her trust was established to give scholarships to financially needy students in Alabama. The fund's estimated net worth is $8.2 million.
Griffin, Dodd, and attorneys for the fund's board members and Regions Bank met privately during the hearing on Thursday to discuss the terms of the proposed settlement.
Griffin said last week he was inclined to appoint a special master and investigate what was going on with the trust fund's finances.
"I know the Attorney General. I know Steve Marshall. I think he's an honorable man. That's why he appointed (Dodd) someone who wouldn't have any appearance of impropriety. But if I were to appoint an independent special master that they're talking about, that would be even better. If I got somebody completely out of the picture and I have the authority to do that, that would really make it good," Griffin said during the hearing.
Byron Mathews, an attorney representing Tyra Lindsey, a 10th-grade student at Hillcrest High School in Evergreen, and her mother, Denese Rankin, asked the court on Thursday to appoint a special master independent of the Attorney General's Office due to Marshall receiving campaign contributions from Regions Bank and Maynard Nexsen, the law firm representing Regions in the case.
Mathews said on Thursday the self-dealing of board members giving scholarships to their kids, employees' kids, and clients' kids instead of financially needy students began after oil was discovered on the trust fund's property in 2010.
"Prior to 2011, the trust had meager resources and assets to award its scholarships, but in 2010 oil was discovered on the property owned by the trust. The largest oil pond east of the Mississippi River. The trust got wealthy, and the trustees got greedy. Regions jacked up its fees from a few thousand dollars to well over $100,000 dollars," Mathews said. "The board members of the trust awarded scholarships not to financially needy Alabama students but to their own children and to the children of employees of their law firm and to the children of the wealthy clients of their law firm, and to the children of a former partner of their law firm who is now a judge before whom they practice. Although the trust provided that the net income of the trust had to be awarded to scholarships, the trustees diverted millions of dollars into an investment account from which Regions Bank could collect in perpetuity its excess of fees. The trustees even gave money to the University of Alabama athletic program so that they could get priority football tickets. These are not just allegations, these are facts. Those facts appear in the trust's tax filings with the IRS."
Mathews said a special master needed to be appointed by the court so more facts could be discovered about the trust fund's expenses before Griffin decided on approving a settlement.
Dodd, an outside counsel appointed as deputy attorney general, said on Thursday he doesn't have a conflict of interest in the case, and every person who has ever run for office in Alabama has accepted campaign contributions.
"I was appointed, I'm sure, because I'm in North Alabama and have nothing to do with anything in Montgomery," Dodd said. "We were appointed so that there wouldn't be any contention that there's a conflict of interest even though I don't think that there is one.
Marshall said in a filing in April in a lawsuit against the trust he intervened in that Regions and the board members "engaged in acts of self-dealing, or breached their fiduciary and other duties to the trust by failing to prevent or prohibit self-dealing, or by permitting and acquiescing in self-dealing, and engaging in other acts and omissions in violation of statutory and common law duties owed to the Trust."
"The Trustee and the Board, jointly and severally, impermissibly awarded scholarships or grants to Albritton's children and paid or caused to be paid scholarships or grant money from the Mabel Amos Fund totaling $135,000 for his children to attend college at the University of Texas at Austin," Marshall said in the filing.
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