A fight over transparency within South Carolina’s probate court system appears to have been resolved after our news outlet filed a report earlier this month drawing attention to the problem. The transparency fight is tied to an ongoing case involving a large Florence County estate – one which has sparked renewed scrutiny of the Palmetto State’s entire probate court apparatus.
Probate courts oversee the estates and assets of people who have passed away. They are charged with ensuring all creditors get paid – and that assets of these estates are divvied up properly amongst the appropriate beneficiaries.
How does probate court operate within South Carolina’s infamous “injustice” system? Not very fairly … nor very openly, it would appear. That’s concerning … especially considering billions of dollars flow through this system each year.
The gist of the story we first exposed? Questionable decisions made by the probate court system related to former clients of Gary Crawford, a Florence-based estate planning attorney. Crawford died by suicide on March 19, 2023 – shooting himself in the head in his car, which was parked outside of his law office.
What motivated Crawford to take his own life remains a mystery … not unlike the files left behind in the aftermath of his death.
According to an attorney representing Darlington County probate judge Marvin Lawson – who presided over several of Crawford’s cases – transcripts of court hearings from one of the most controversial cases he handled do exist, and will finally be provided to attorneys.
Transcripts for these hearings – held on October 12, 2022 and November 14, 2022 – had been in limbo for eight months after Lawson removed Bradley Hanna and Craig Hanna from their roles in connection to the estate of their mother, Georgia “Jo” Hanna. Jo Hanna is the widow of Carlos M. Hanna, the founder and primary owner of the successful Florence, S.C.-based janitorial and sanitation firm, Coastal Sanitary Supply. Carlos Hanna died on December 14, 2010 – leaving behind a large estate to his family.
The disposition of the Hanna estate has sparked controversy, confusion and questions about the actions of those officials charged with overseeing it. Those questions, in turn, have cast a shadow over the entire probate system.
Bradley Hanna had originally been named conservator for his mother’s estate, while his brother Craig had been designated as her guardian. In their places, Lawson appointed the Darlington County treasurer, Jeff Robinson, as Jo Hanna’s conservator and another elected politician, state representative Cody Mitchell, as her guardian.
These moves sparked backlash after Columbia, S.C.-based attorney Tucker Player – who represents Craig Hanna – claimed the judge had issued “an unconstitutional and illegal order” on April 18, 2023 related to the sale of some of Jo Hanna’s property, a stately brick home in Florence on a beautiful tree-lined street in a prestigious neighborhood (.pdf).
The sale of the home – one of Jo Hanna’s final remaining assets – was part of an estimated $20 million in transfers from the estate Carlos Hanna left behind. According to Player, the sale was effectuated “without providing any notice or opportunity to be heard” to the parties involved in this action. Which appears to have been the point. Attached to Player’s motion was a letter (.jpg) from Charles Ipock – an attorney with the Haynesworth Sinkler Boyd law firm – requesting Lawson issue his order “without notice, as allowed under the South Carolina probate court.”
Columbia-based attorney Desa Ballard – who was retained by Lawson – notified Player on August 18, 2023 that she had tracked down the transcripts from these hearings on behalf of her client, the judge. Ballard – whose practice focuses on professional ethics, professional licensing issues, attorney grievances, litigation and appeals – explained a private court reporter had been hired to transcribe the hearings. At the time of the hearings, an agreement was made between attorney Mike Sautter – who previously represented Craig Hanna – and Kevin Barth, who represented Bradley Hanna, to split the costs for the appearance fee and the hours expended on the four-day hearing.
While Sautter requested the transcripts and paid his portion on January 12, 2023, Barth never submitted payment for his half.
While the mystery of the transcript appears to have been solved, it is still unclear why former S.C. circuit court judge (and former state lawmaker) J. Michael Baxley decided to insert himself into this narrative earlier this month. After Sautter received no reply (or transcript) following his request, the documents were again requested by Craig Hanna’s new attorney on August 4, 2023 – with a 10-day timeframe for their production. Absent that, Player indicated he would file a formal request to compel their production with the court.
Instead of receiving the transcripts on August 14, 2023, Hanna’s attorney received a terse email from Baxley.
“Court Administration does not fund court reporters for the Probate Court; therefore, any hearing transcript being ordered is a matter handled between counsel and the independent court reporter,” Baxley wrote to Player. “We trust you realize a transcript of every hearing is not automatically generated and placed ‘of record’ in any probate file.”
“Perhaps the reason previous counsel (Sautter) did not receive a transcript as apparently requested, assuming the letter was accurately mailed with sufficient postage attached, and then delivered by the post office (of which you [sic] letter contains no proof), was the original request makes no offer of payment nor request for estimated cost, terms of payment, nor method of payment,” Baxley continued. “Those type arrangements are standard with any transcript request.”
As Lawson’s attorney noted in her response, though, the former attorney for Bradley Hanna had submitted a formal request and payment. The delay in transcript production actually resulted from the opposing party.
Instead of informing Craig Hanna’s attorneys of the cause of the delay – or suggesting with whom they needed to speak to resolve it – the court ignored their request and appears to have enlisted a retired judge to send a letter suggesting they were the problem.
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It’s unknown why Kevin Barth – who represents Craig Hanna’s brother Bradley – failed to fulfill his end of the agreement regarding the transcripts. It’s also unknown if Baxley was made aware by judge Lawson that attorneys for Craig Hanna had requested and paid for the transcripts prior to sending them an email accusing them of “misplaced umbrage, based upon (an) inaccurate foundation.”
In the meantime, after Jo Hanna’s probate case was transferred to Horry County, a hearing was finally scheduled for September 21, 2023 to determine who will serve as her guardian and conservator. This is the first step in determining whether the assets tied to the estate of her late husband have been properly handled by the court.
Why does this matter? Because as we have previously reported, South Carolina is rife with allegations of probate court fraud and abuse. And as noted, billions of dollars are at stake in these cases.
“This news outlet will be exploring reforms experts say are needed to protect those most vulnerable to victimization … and providing insight into the probate court processes to help our audience understand how to best protect themselves and their loved ones,” I noted in a recent story recapping some of those allegations.
Count on us to continue to do that. And as we continue digging into those allegations and other issues we are finding within the South Carolina court system – I would remind everyone reading this article that FITSNews has an open microphone policy which encourages any individuals named in our reports to address our audience directly.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Jenn Wood is FITSNews’ incomparable research director. She’s also the producer of the FITSFiles and Cheer Incorporated podcasts and leading expert on all things Murdaugh/ South Carolina justice. A former private investigator with a criminal justice degree, evildoers beware, Jenn Wood is far from your average journalist! A deep dive researcher with a passion for truth and a heart for victims, this mom of two is pretty much a superhero in FITSNews country. Did we mention she’s married to a rocket scientist? (Lucky guy!) Got a story idea or a tip for Jenn? Email her at [email protected].
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