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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Estate of the late Ray Charles & Albany State at odds

Six years after music legend Ray Charles donated $3 million to Albany State University to build a performing arts center in his name, his estate wants to know why $2 million of the donated money was used for scholarships.

At issue is whether that money was explicitly earmarked for the center, since no written instructions accompanied the $2 million gift, given to the historically black college in Charles' hometown after he was awarded an honorary doctorate in 2002. Albany State maintains that while the school does plan to name the center after Charles, the money was an unrestricted gift to the college.

Construction on the performing arts center, which was also to include a theater named for Charles' late mother, Reatha Robinson, has not yet begun.

"We're not particularly interested in getting the money back," said Ivan Hoffman, general counsel for Charles' estate. "We are interested in having Mr. Charles' wishes fulfilled. But if it's not going to be used for that specific purpose, we want our money back."

Charles gave two gifts of money to Albany State: $1 million in 2001 and $2 million in 2002. Hoffman said the money was always intended to help build the center, even though that was not put in writing.

"Mr. Charles always expressed, and the university always acknowledged, that Ray Charles was going to make a gift for the construction of the performing arts center and the theater in his late mother's name," Hoffman said.

The project will cost at least $23 million, said Albany State University spokeswoman Sophia Glover. The $3 million from Charles' estate is the only money contributed toward the center so far, she said.

"It has always been clear that we would use (the money) for our most immediate need, and that would be scholarships for students to attend the university," Glover said. "In return for the gift, to show our appreciation for Ray Charles, we wanted to name the fine arts building for him."

In a letter dated June 22, 2006, to Charles' longtime manager, Joe Adams, Everette Freeman - then the president of Albany State - wrote that state Board of Regents did not recommend the project be forwarded to the Legislature for funding.

"Consequently, we likely will not see funds appropriate (sic) for the building until at least the fiscal year beginning in July 2008, if we are lucky," Freeman wrote.

The letter said the $1 million gift is in a bank, and that the balance "was used for Presidential Scholarships."

"I was unable to locate any document restricting the way or manner the gift could be used, although the intent remains to use the ... funds alongside state appropriations, when made available, to construct the Ray Charles Fine Arts Building on the ASU campus," Freeman wrote.

Subsequent press releases and other references to the gift by Albany State said the donation "will support the university's efforts to educate young people."

Glover said the school considers the $3 million gift an honor, and that the situation is a misunderstanding.

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