WASHINGTON, Sept. 22 (UPI) -- The change of summer into fall is the occasion for many to gather for annual family reunions. Southern cuisine and "down home" friendliness mark the occasion as parents, siblings, cousins, and a host of others reconnect in many communities in the South.
No such fete is likely for the Baker family of Columbia, S.C. The Baker siblings won't be gathering together anytime anywhere outside the local courthouse, where it looks more like the Hatfields and the McCoys instead of "Family Feud."
The death of real estate magnate David Baker has turned into what The State, South Carolina's leading newspaper, calls "a family and business nightmare that has spawned one of the largest and messiest sets of lawsuits in years in the Midlands."
Baker's two daughters, Debra and Dale, have sued two of their brothers, John and Kenneth, asserting, The State says, that they helped to "hasten" their father's death.
The news accounts indicate that the sisters also sued brother John, his partner Steve Anastasion, and others associated for not only looting the real estate firm David Baker and his cousin Lee Baker built, but also refusing to disclose basic financial information about the company, thereby making a full accounting of David Baker's estate - and theirs -- impossible.
As the The State reports, Baker and Baker was once one of South Carolina's biggest success stories. Its holdings in Richland County alone made it the county's 19th-largest taxpayer. The firm owns and manages more than 100 properties across the country from its Columbia offices.
By all accounts, David Baker was not only a successful businessman, but also quite active in the community. He was president of service clubs, served on bank and hospital boards, and was chairman of the local United Way. He was a prolific fundraiser.
The lawsuits are about the current value of David Baker's share of a business that acquired more than $93 million during his lifetime in real estate property that the daughters now believe is worth well over $200 million.
The company pays property taxes each year on assessed property values of more than $150 million without a quibble, yet according to the The State, brothers John and Kenneth and Steven Anastasion claim the firm's fair market value is less than $7 million which, if correct, would make each daughter's shares worth barely half a million dollars.
Why such a large difference? That's what Baker's daughters and their lawyers want to know.
They say publicly that the values are being low-balled to save estate taxes and to deprive them of their rightful share of the business. They also say that fraudulent filings have been made with the courts and taxing authorities.
The plot thickens. It seems that David Baker's death due to complications from Alzheimer's disease has left a lot of unanswered questions.
Debra and Dale say in their lawsuit that even though their father could have afforded the best care, brothers John and Kenneth kept him at home with unqualified help that led to an early and unnecessarily painful death. The daughters also say that, even though brothers John and Kenneth knew that Dad's Alzheimer's disease had caused significant "swallowing difficulties," they allowed him to be fed "hot dogs and other food" that "caused him to cough and aspirate repeatedly."
The sisters say that physicians and nurses they've contacted are prepared to testify to this mistreatment.
John and Kenneth have denied they did anything wrong and have countersued for sanctions against their sisters for suing them in the first place. According to the brothers, "No degree of health care would have prevented or delayed" his death.
And, they say, charges that the business is being mismanaged is just plain "frivolous."
While alive, David Baker was one of the wealthiest and most influential leaders in Columbia; in death, juries in Columbia will have the chance to see the mettle of his descendents as they duke it out.
While it's sad that too many family relationships come down to this, the results of these lawsuits will likely prove that battles between heirs can overshadow the best accomplishments of David Baker's life. Even "Family Feud" host Richard Dawson could have seen this one coming.
-- Horace Cooper writes regularly for United Press International and GOPUSA.com. He was praised as a key Republican strategist in Elizabeth Drew's New York Times bestseller "Showdown: The Struggle Between the Gingrich Congress and the Clinton White House" and extolled as a "poster conservative" by Michele Mitchell in "A New Kind of Party Animal."
-- United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues.