“I'm hoping for the court to make a full disclosure of every penny of the money that was spent,” said George Bates, pastor of the Holy Commission Nondenominational Church.
Bates in April filed a lawsuit against Anniston attorney Donald Stewart, who represented many area residents in the 2003 Abernathy v. Monsanto case. Stewart was awarded control of the settlement funds and established the Abernathy Trust Foundation to administer the money to the plaintiffs.
Bates issued a press release, along with Anniston City Councilman Ben Little and county resident Glen Ray, publicizing the court hearing. The release stated the group will offer a shuttle service to the courthouse for residents who want to attend the hearing.
Ray said the shuttle service will display public support for justice in the case.
“He [the judge] should rule in the favor of the people,” Ray said. “We’re not asking for him to do anything special; we're just asking him to do what's right.”
Birmingham attorney William Rutledge will represent Gates. Rutledge said he filed the suit only after Stewart refused to respond to a letter requesting the accounting documents of the settlement.
Rutledge added that trustees of settlements are entitled by Alabama law to receive an accounting of the funds dispersed.
Rutledge said an independent agent dispersed settlement funds in another major case involving PCB contamination in Anniston. He said he is unsure why Stewart was granted control of the settlement money from Abernathy v. Monsanto.
“It is very unusual,” he said. “I have never heard of that kind of unfettered control.”
The Star’s efforts to reach Stewart or his attorney, Miles Williams, were unsuccessful Friday. However, court documents filed by Williams in May stated the suit should be dismissed because Calhoun County Circuit Judge Joel Laird, who presided over the original Abernathy case, has expressly reserved the authority to handle cases such as this. The document also states that the Abernathy Trust Foundation was established in New York and is not under Alabama’s jurisdiction.
Judge William Rhea will preside over the hearing in Etowah County, which will determine if the case moves forward. The Abernathy v. Monsanto case was held in Etowah County because of a change of venue to ensure a fair trial. Rutledge said he hopes to keep his lawsuit in Etowah County because Stewart has pull in the Calhoun County court system.
The hearing is scheduled for 2 p.m. Monday at the Etowah County Judicial Building in Gadsden. The group’s buses leave Anniston at noon from the City Meeting Center. The cost is $12 per person.