(NEW YORK) — A Michigan attorney is alleging that a judge and two lawyers have executed a plan to “raid and bankrupt” the estate of civil rights icon Rosa Parks by draining it of more than half-a-million dollars and holding hostage a treasure trove of memorabilia.
Steven Cohen claimed in court papers filed this week that Wayne County Probate Judge Freddie G. Burton, Jr. and attorneys John Chase, Jr. and Melvin Jefferson, Jr. conspired to drain the estate of more than $500,000 through unnecessary legal fees that have left it “deeply in the red.”
At the center of the dispute are more than 8,000 pieces of civil rights memorabilia belonging to Parks including personal letters, photos, papers, books, awards and clothing. The collection is valued at up to $10 million and has been sitting for months in auction limbo in a warehouse belonging to Guernsey’s Auctioneers and Brokers of New York.
The collection is supposed to be sold as one lot to a museum or institute that can display all of the items together.
Cohen represents the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute, which is “dedicated to the motivation of youth to reach their highest potential in an environment of peace,” according to the filing.
Parks became an icon of the civil rights movement when she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus in 1955, an act that earned her the title “Mother of the modern Civil Rights movement.”
Before Parks died in 2005, she left almost all of her estate to the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute and nominated institute co-founder and longtime friend Elaine Steele to be the trustee along with former judge Adam Shakoor.
Cohen wrote that Judge Burton replaced Steele and Shakoor with “long-time probate cronies” Chase and Jefferson after Parks died.
“This was the beginning of a broad conspiracy among Judge Burton, Chase and Jefferson (the ‘Conspirators’) to deplete the estate of its assets and unjustly and unlawfully direct these and other assets to the possession, control and ownership of Chase and Jefferson,” Cohen wrote in the filing.
Cohen said that Chase and Jefferson charged the estate $595,000 in fees using “double, triple and quadruple billing practices to falsely inflate the administrative and attorney fees.”
“It was nothing more than a concerted plan to raid and bankrupt the estate of a revered civil rights icon for improper and selfish financial interests,” he wrote.
Alan May, the attorney for Chase and Jefferson, vehemently denies all of the claims.
In a separate filing, Cohen asked that Burton be removed from the case for allegedly conspiring with Chase and Jefferson.
May said he and his clients will “absolutely” be fighting back against the Cohen’s claims.
Burton did not respond to a request for comment from ABC News.
“The overall goal is to have proper administration of the estate,” Cohen told ABCNews.com. “We are looking for Chase and Jefferson and Judge Burton to pay back all of these outrageous attorney fees to the tune of approximately half-a-million dollars in cash. We’re looking for that to be returned and we’re looking for the artifacts to be returned to our control.”
Cohen is also demanding a trial by jury.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
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