By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Florence Aldridge’s attorneys will ask a U.S. bankruptcy court to let them proceed with her lawsuit against state Rep. Brian Aldridge, his parents and the charity he runs.
She claims they stole more than $500,000 and other property from her while Aldridge’s father and her brother-in-law, Louis, held her power of attorney.
Tuesday, the 67-year-old piano teacher went to Lee County Chancery Court to press her case before Chancellor Michael Malski.
In a whirlwind of events, the judge wound up announcing that Louis Aldridge and his wife, Janice, filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection at 12:43 p.m., after they left the courtroom just before the trial got under way.
That means their own assets are temporarily protected against claims and that legal proceedings against them are temporarily halted.
Co-defendants Brian Aldridge and Touched By An Angel Ministries Inc. have no such protections. The charity was set up by the Aldridges in 1996 and Brian is its chief executive officer.
Malski asked Florence Aldridge’s attorneys, Frank and Rhett Russell of Tupelo, to petition the bankruptcy court to lift the legal barrier and decide how it wants to handle completion of her lawsuit.
“It’s my opinion that the bankruptcy judge will send this matter back to be heard by me,” Malski said as the hearing ended about 2:15 p.m.
Brian, Louis and Janice Aldridge deny they misappropriated Florence Aldridge’s assets while she was ill. Tupelo attorney T.K. Moffett represents Brian Aldridge, while Tim Hudson of Columbus is the couple’s attorney.
From 2003 to mid-2008, Louis Aldridge had complete control over her property and was empowered to make financial decisions in her best interests.
The court record states than when she recovered and realized her assets were gone, she revoked the POA and asked for a full accounting.
She asks the court to order actual damages, punitive damages and attorneys’ fees.
Rebecca Owens, the hearing’s only witness, testified that her investigation into spending from Florence Aldridge’s bank accounts and investments showed that Touched By An Angel Ministries Inc. received $140,100 and that a parallel entity, TBAAM Enterprises Inc., run by Louis Aldridge, received $371,656 during the time he held power over the estate.
Disbursements from her accounts to Janice, Brian and Louis Aldridge, and the “Angel” organizations came to $552,212.
She also cited numerous fund transfers between the two organizations totaling about $160,000.
Records from the Secretary of State’s Office, where businesses and charities register, shows SOS dissolved TBAAM Enterprises as a corporation in December 2004, while Touched By An Angel Ministries Inc., created in 1996, is in good standing.
While Owens said she lacked all the relevant documents, account records from AmSouth, Trustmark and Renasant banks showed more than $7,500 in overdraft charges on the Angel accounts during this timeframe.
Under questioning by Moffett, Owens said she wasn’t saying “anybody stole anything or defrauded anybody. It’s just how much was moved” from Florence Aldridge’s assets.
She said all three – Louis, Janice and Brian – signed checks moving funds out of Florence’s accounts.
Among documents presented to the court was Owens’ detailed listing of checks, including $25,684 to Blackmon Chevrolet, $1,688 to MLM Men’s Clothiers, $1,601 cited as “payoff Brian’s loan #80855″ and scores listed as “cash.”
From 2005 until June 2008, AmSouth debit card transactions from Florence Aldridge’s accounts to Louis Aldridge show at least 110 transactions, including $4,396 to various airlines for what appears to be two trips to Hawaii and thousands of dollars spent there from Club Sophistica and the Pineapple Grill to Kaanapali Beach and The Point At Po.
After Tuesday’s hearing, Rhett Russell said he was unsure how long it will take to get his client’s stay set-aside petition before the bankruptcy court.
Malski said when that permission comes, if the case returns to his court, he will give it top priority for trial within a few days of notice.