The Community Foundation of South Alabama [CFSA] is being sued over a $1.3 million charitable gift the donor claims the non-profit has refused to return or use as it was originally intended to be.
Will Rogers Blackburn was a longtime clinical pathologist, an accomplished researcher, a retired University of South Alabama [USA] professor and an Air Force veteran. After his death in 2014, one of the last wishes in his will was to establish a foundation to benefit children in South Alabama.
Carolyn Rude’, a first cousin who lives in Georgia, ultimately became the executor of Blackburn’s estate and sought to make that wish a reality working through the CFSA. However, in a lawsuit filed last year, Rude’ claims she was misled about what input the estate would have over how their donation would be spent during by the foundation’s CEO, Rebecca Byrne, wife of U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne [R-Fairhope], who is also currently running for U.S. Senate.
According to the lawsuit, Rude’ believed the gift from Blackburn’s estate would establish a “donor advised” fund known as the “Will R. Blackburn Foundation Fund” and that the estate would be personally involved in suggesting grant awards. Rude’ claims this was based on representations made to her in conversations and emails with Byrne and through literature she was given about ways to donate to CFSA.
Rude’s complaint suggests the fund was established with a small donation she made in 2014. Documents were then filed in Baldwin County Probate Court formalizing the agreement between the estate and CFSA in 2015, but the donation itself was delayed after control of Blackburn’s estate was contested.
Once that matter was settled, Rude’ directed the $1.3 million donation to be made in December of 2016.
Rude’ claims she was led to believe money was going into a “donor advised fund” that the estate would have input over, not a “field of interest fund” that would be controlled entirely by the CFSA.
However, according to the complaint, Rude’ was contacted by Byrne the following month asking to combine the “donor advised Will R. Blackburn Foundation Fund” with a newly created “field of interest fund” identified as the “Will R. Blackburn Philanthropic Fund.” The request took Rude’ by surprise.
“This new fund, previously unknown to Dr. Rudé and the estate, excluded Dr. Rudé and Joe Rudé as “donor advisors,” was opened and/or created without the knowledge or consent of Dr. Rudé as the personal representative of the estate and had been funded by [the $1.3 million donation], an amended complaint filed last month reads.
Rudé claims she initially contacted Byrne asking for the money CFSA had placed in both funds be consolidated into one the estate would maintain “advisory recommendation privileges” over, but the complaint suggests that CFSA refused to do that. It doesn’t offer a reason as to why.
When the estate accumulated more money in the future, it refused to transfer an additional $1 million to CFSA due to its “wrong conduct.” However, the non-profit allegedly attempted to force the estate’s hand based on their previously established agreement by taking legal action in Baldwin County Probate Court. Rudé then filed a lawsuit in Circuit Court seeking to have the initial donation returned with interest.
The suit accuses CFSA of breach of contract and intentional misrepresentation. It was recently combined with the pending probate matter into a single case Baldwin County Circuit Court Judge Joseph Norton is presiding over.
The CFSA has denied almost all of the allegations made by attorneys representing Rudé and the Blackburn estate. It has argued it was only following the agreement between with the Blackburn estate as it was ordered to based on their 2015 agreement in probate court. In its answers to the complaint, CFSA’s attorneys said “any loss [the estate] may have suffered is due to [its] own negligence.”
Attorneys representing CFSA and the Blackburn estate said they could not comment on the matter because it is pending in court. Reached by Lagniappe, Byrne also declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Unless some type of agreement is reached beforehand, the case is scheduled to go to trial Nov. 4.
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