Leigh Manning is livid.
The grandniece of former Alabama Secretary of State Mabel Amos is incredulous that her own daughter has been denied college money from a multimillion-dollar charitable trust set up by her beloved great aunt while the children of one of the men tasked with running it had more than $100,000 of tuition paid from the fund.
“I think they’re underhanded and I think they railroaded Mabel to do what they wanted to do with her own money. She would have never wanted anything like this, never,” Manning said of Alabama Ethics Commission Director Tom Albritton, one of three attorneys appointed to oversee the trust and carry out its mission of handing out scholarships to underprivileged kids.
As Lagniappe reported recently, Albritton’s children received at least $105,000 of tuition money from the Mabel Amos Memorial Fund to attend the University of Texas, sparking questions about whether the state’s chief ethics officer has had his own ethical lapse.
What gets Manning’s goat is not just her belief Albritton has engaged in the “self-dealing” expressly forbidden in her great-aunt’s will, but that trustees have mostly denied her own daughter financial help for college even as they took care of the Albritton children. Then there’s also her surprise at finding out through a newspaper article that the land Amos owned has produced roughly $80 million in oil over the past 11 years.
“This is the deal. Obviously, oil was struck in 2010. The only person I ever talked to was John Bell. I talked to John Bell from 1999 on forward all the time about getting these kids through school,” Manning said of one of the trustees who worked in Regions Bank’s trust division.
Between 2002 and 2018, Regions Bank brought in more than $1 million for managing the trust. IRS 990 filings from the Mabel Amos Memorial Fund show Regions averaged five hours of work per week on the fund and that it paid the bank close to half as much as it distributed in scholarships during that time.
Manning said she spoke to Bell frequently and their children even went to school together, but he never told her the Amos land was home to one of the biggest gushers in Conecuh County or that it had put more than $9 million into the Mabel Amos Memorial Fund. Bell retired from Regions a couple of years ago and attempts to reach him for this story have been unsuccessful. Regions’ new representative on the trust is Drew McNeese, but he did not respond to multiple attempts to reach him for this story.
Manning described Amos as having “treated me like her own child” and doesn’t believe the woman who died in 1999 at the age of 99 would have wanted to see her struggle financially while a piece of property she owned brought in tens of millions of dollars.
But Manning’s daughter, Megan Carmack, did receive money from the trust — more than $72,000 over 11 years, according to 990 filings. That money went to pay for private school over those years. Now, however, Carmack says she is struggling to pay for her master’s degree in counseling. She says she received $4,000 from the trust in 2019 for the last year of her bachelor’s degree, but has been rejected for any more.
“I actually applied for a scholarship my last year of getting my bachelor’s degree because I was struggling — I was like, ‘I don’t want to get student loans for this.’ I just pulled out student loans to pay for my master’s because they told me they could only pay so much per year. So they gave me $4,000 for my college. Four thousand dollars!” Carmack said incredulously.
By comparison, Albritton’s children received six $15,000 disbursements between 2013 and 2018, along with two $7,500 scholarships for a total of $105,000. Albritton did not respond to questions asking if the trust made any payments for his kids’ tuition after 2018, which is the latest 990 available.
Carmack also took issue with the trustees not informing the family of the oil discovery at the Amos 36-3 well in 2010, as well as using the proceeds from that to pay for the Albritton children’s tuition.
“The main thing that gets me is that they’ve struck oil on their land and my mom is sitting over here not getting anything. She’s on disability and works part time at the Dollar General and you’re telling me they’re making millions off of her aunt’s land? What? And not to mention that John Bell knows damn well that Mabel Amos thought my mom hung the moon. She basically raised my mom,” Carmack said.
When Lagniappe began investigating spending from the Mabel Amos Memorial Fund, Carmack’s name jumped out as she was listed as Amos’s great-grandniece. What also stood out was that payments lasted for 11 years, much longer than the typical college career lasts. It wasn’t clear the payments weren’t for college.
When trustee Rick Clifton was contacted and asked whether Carmack had actually attended college for 11 years, he didn’t mention the payments had been for elementary, middle and high school.
“I’m not sure if she went to school for 11 years. I just know that she was one of the few people that were kin to Mabel that we were able to help. I don’t know how many years she got a scholarship, honestly. I’m trying to think. Every year it’s a reviewable thing,” Clifton said. “I think, just to be honest, with her being a relative of Mabel, we kind of took the approach that if Mabel was alive that she would’ve helped her. So we were trying to fulfill what Mabel’s intent was.”
So why was Carmack only given $4,000 for college? That was a question Clifton and Albritton wouldn’t answer for this story. They did not respond when contacted.
Manning believes Amos would have never left her or her children struggling financially while the trust bearing her name swells with millions in oil money. But she also feels Amos’s advanced age and loss of mental faculties at the time of the will’s creation played a role in what happened. Manning received just a $10,000 inheritance when Amos passed away, but the will also created the Amos Family Trust, which took care of Amos’s sister, Esther Gulley, and Manning’s son, Devon Bellizio.
“She left my son a trust fund. It paid for him to go all the way through Trinity and college at the University of Alabama, and then some. She left him a huge amount of money. He could have gone to Harvard and it would have paid for Harvard,” Manning said. “I was kind of left out. It skipped a generation with me and went straight to my son. I don’t think Mabel would have ever had it that way. She would have done anything for me. She stepped in a parental role from the time I was born until the time she died.”
Manning’s other children were young and Amos didn’t really know them. Manning says her great-aunt was already having some cognitive issues by the time Megan was born.
“Megan was born in 1995 and she [Amos] would talk to her like she was a little boy. So Megan would have benefited greatly if she had been of sound mind back in ’95,” Manning said.
Manning has hired well-known Montgomery attorney Thomas Gallion to look into the matter. Gallion, who has represented Manning’s mother before and knew her father well, also said Amos was close to his parents. He waded right in when it came to offering an assessment of the handling of the Mabel Amos Memorial Fund.
“I know that Mabel Amos had no children and that her nephew James Gulley was her next of kin. She treated James Gulley like her son and his daughter, Leigh Manning, like her own daughter. I was shocked to discover how Regions Bank Trust Department has treated Mabel Amos’s family under the Mabel Amos Educational Trust. I have agreed to represent the family as to how members of their family have been treated and the obvious mismanagement of the trust,” Gallion wrote.
Manning is concerned about the trust being run properly, but also wants to make sure her great-aunt’s trust is there to help her children through college, as she believes Amos would have desired.
“I’m here working for $8.50 an hour and I’ve got three kids, one trying to get her master’s in counseling. I’ve got two more — one going into college and another one in high school. But I’m struggling now just to feed them and I’m sitting over here going, ‘Are you kidding me right now!?’ Mabel raised me. She put me through court reporting school. She bought my first car. She bought my second car,” Manning said.
Asked why she thinks Amos wasn’t more generous to her in the will given that relationship, Manning recalled going to visit her great-aunt in the nursing home for her “dinner parties” that included “her whole entourage” of Albritton, Bell and Clifton.
“The only thing I can think of is the Cliftons, the Albrittons and John Bell. That’s all I can think,” she said. “Absolutely, no question in my mind. I always kind of felt that way, but I completely trusted John Bell. Completely trusted his word. Completely …. The thing is I feel like all three of them have railroaded me out the back door.”
The will also states that any person who attempts to “oppose the probate of this will” would lose anything left to them by Amos. Manning says that is another reason she never attempted to question the trustees about how money had been doled out. For her, the primary importance was making sure her children were taken care of.
“I knew I could never question the will or my children would have been cut off. I wasn’t going to take that chance. I wasn’t going to take the chance of Devon, who had a separate trust, taken away from him,” she said.
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