March 9, 2012 at 11:22 am EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Kameny estate dispute sparks lawsuits
Frank Kameny, gay news, gay politics dc

Frank Kameny’s March 3 burial was postponed, but his headstone and grave marker are now in place and are open for visitors at the cemetery, which is located at 18th Street and Potomac Avenue, S.E. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The man named by the late gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny as the main beneficiary of his estate has filed separate lawsuits against four of Kameny’s longtime friends and fellow activists, charging that they “wrongfully” removed property from Kameny’s house shortly after his death last October.

The lawsuits, which were filed in D.C. Superior Court on March 3 and March 5, came days after one of the men now named as a defendant, Bob Witeck, announced that a March 3 ceremony for the interment of Kameny’s ashes at Congressional Cemetery had been postponed in “deference” to Kameny’s estate.

“Timothy Lamont Clark, the Personal Representative of the Estate of Dr. Franklin E. Kameny, filed Complaints for Writ of Replevin against Dr. Marvin Carter, Charles Francis, Richard Rosendall, and Robert ‘Bob’ Witeck in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia Civil Division,” says a statement released by attorney Glen Ackerman, who is representing Clark and the Kameny estate.

“The Estate alleges that Messrs. Carter, Francis, Rosendall, and Witeck removed property belonging to the Estate of Dr. Kameny without authority or permission,” Ackerman says in the statement. “The Estate is seeking immediate recovery of the property wrongfully taken.”

Witeck and Rosendall said they had no immediate comment on the lawsuits. Rande Joiner, an attorney saying she represents Francis, said Francis also would have no comment. Carter did not respond to an email and phone message seeking comment.

U.S., a website specializing in legal issues, describes “Replevin” as an “action or writ issued to recover an item of personal property wrongfully taken.” It says it can be used as a legal remedy “in which a court requires a defendant to return specific goods to the plaintiff at the beginning of the action” while the case is awaiting trial.

The suits allege that some or all of the defendants improperly removed from Kameny’s house his personal papers; a U.S.  Army uniform of Kameny’s; a statue; “Gay is Good” pins; and “personal and historical photographs,” among other items.

The lawsuit also claims Francis is required to hand over to the estate the “posthumous certificate awarded to Franklin Edward Kameny by the American Astronomical Society on January 10, 2012.”

Francis said in a press release earlier this year that he traveled to Texas at the invitation of the astronomical society to accept the award on Kameny’s behalf.

The lawsuits say each of these items “belong to the Plaintiff and the Estate of Franklin Edward Kameny” and are of “unknown historical value and of a monetary value yet to be determined.”

Ackerman told the Blade that Francis, Witeck, Rosendall, and Carter removed the items from Kameny’s house in November.

Rosendall and Witeck told the Blade earlier this year that Clark, who was living in the house at the time, gave them permission to take the items to preserve them for safekeeping, with the intent of returning the items to the estate.

The two said Clark, who inherited Kameny’s house, told them he was about to have the house cleaned to prepare for placing it on the market for sale and was ready to dispose of many of the remaining items in the house as trash.

Rosendall told the Blade last week that he, Witeck, and Carter became alarmed that important papers and other items needed to preserve Kameny’s legacy were in danger of being discarded and lost. He said Clark had no objections to their temporarily taking possession of the items and allowed them access to the house.

Ackerman this week said Clark disputes that characterization of what happened. According to Ackerman, Clark says he never told Witeck, Francis, Rosendall, or Carter that he planned to throw away the items in question. Ackerman said Clark feels he was misled by the men into thinking they had the legal right to take the items from the house.

“At that time he didn’t understand the legal issues of all of this,” Ackerman said.

Activists helped Kameny in last years

Kameny’s will, which names Clark as Kameny’s personal representative for the estate, also names Clark as the sole beneficiary of Kameny’s house, car, and all other possessions except his papers, which Kameny bequeathed to the Library of Congress.

Activists who know Witeck, Francis, Carter, and Rosendall credit them with helping Kameny financially in the last years of his life. Carter, founder and executive director of the local charitable group Helping Our Brothers and Sisters (HOBS), arranged for the group to raise money to help Kameny pay his bills at a time when he was in financial need.

Francis founded the Kameny Papers Project, which arranged for the Library of Congress in 2007 to take possession of thousands of Kameny’s papers and documents that cover the gay rights leader’s work on behalf of LGBT equality over a 50-year period.

The project, under Francis’ and Witeck’s direction, raised more than $75,000 from donors to buy the papers from Kameny, giving him needed financial support, and donate them to the Library of Congress, where they are available to researchers.

Ackerman said he recognizes the contributions of the four men on Kameny’s behalf. But he said that he and Clark are legally obligated in probating Kameny’s will to keep an accurate inventory of all of Kameny’s property. All of the items taken from the house belong to Clark under the terms of Kameny’s will, Ackerman said.

He said Francis has declined to say why he has yet to deliver the Kameny papers he took from the house shortly after Kameny’s death to the Library of Congress.

“It’s almost six months since Dr. Kameny died,” Ackerman said. “What is it taking so long for him to give those papers to the Library of Congress?”

He said he was troubled to learn from Joiner, Francis’s lawyer,  that Francis and the others have agreed to return the items they took from the house but only if the estate issues a legal waiver releasing them from any liability associated with the estate or Clark.

Ackerman said the estate refuses to agree to such a waiver.

“Why do they want to be released from liability if they didn’t do anything wrong?” he said.

Interment delayed over gravesite ownership

The abrupt postponement of the March 3 interment ceremony for Kameny’s ashes at D.C.’s historic Congressional Cemetery startled many of the activists who knew Kameny and planned to attend.

Patrick Crowley, interim senior manager for Congressional Cemetery, said Witeck informed him on March 2, one day before the ceremony was to take place, that he and the other organizers of the event wanted to call it off.

“All I can say is there is a disagreement between the parties that own the plot and the estate of Mr. Kameny,” Crowley said.

Crowley said HOBS, operated by Carter, purchased the gravesite earlier this year.

Ackerman said HOBS along with Francis and Witeck announced plans for the burial service without consulting Clark or the Kameny estate. He said Clark, who has legal rights to the ashes and planned to take possession of them, was not informed in advance of the burial plans and was “completely excluded” from the entire process of obtaining a cemetery plot and planning the interment of the ashes.

When Clark asked about the ashes last year, he was told they already had been buried, Ackerman said Clark told him. Ackerman said he and Clark did not learn that the ashes had not been buried until last month, when he saw a press release about plans for the interment and a cemetery official told him the ashes were in an urn at the cemetery office.

With this as a backdrop, Ackerman said he informed the cemetery and Francis, Witeck, and Carter, through attorney Joiner that the estate would not allow the interment of the ashes to take place until HOBS signed over ownership of the cemetery plot to the estate.

The estate would pay HOBS for the plot and other burial related expenses, Ackerman said.

He said HOBS agreed to do this but informed him that the HOBS board could not make arrangements to approve the sale in time for the ceremony. Ackerman said the estate had no objections to holding the gravesite ceremony but it could not agree to the burial of the ashes until the estate gained legal ownership of the plot.

Reached by phone March 2, Witeck acknowledged that the interment ceremony was being postponed due to issues related to the Kameny estate, but he declined to provide further details on the reason for the postponement, including whether organizers didn’t want a ceremony if the ashes could not be interred.

Editor’s note: The law firm Ackerman Brown PLCC, of which Glen Ackerman is managing partner, represents the Washington Blade.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

  • Thanks for adding that disclosure at the end of the piece.

  • I don’t know what on Dr. K’s mind when he signed his will. He should turn his property into a gay history museum or fundation somthing like that, while keeping his house and enjoying tax benefits.

    Now Mr. C’s puts the house in the market, the heft of it’s value will go to pay tax, accountants, lawyers, real estate agents, etc., while Mr.c can get some cash out of it.

    If Mr.C really cares about Dr. K like he said in the Blade interviews, he has moral obligation to pull the house off the the market and co-op with gay community to preserve Dr.K’s legacy, BTW, it’s a decent job for Mr.C as the curator.

    Dr. K belongs to gay community and history. Mr. C’s handling is selfish, not in the best interest of gay community.

  • This is an insult and injustice to the people who did so much to help Kameny over the past years, often at their own expense, and to Kameny’s memory. There would be no house for Kameny to have left anyone without these people investing their time and money while asking nothing in return. They insured his taxes were paid and helped insure that he had heat and food. There is no doubt in my mind that Kameny would be outraged at how these people are being treated. These individuals were invaluable in protecting Kameny’s historical papers and insuring they went to a national institution as I believe he has wanted for many years. There may be a simple answer as to why the current papers he willed to the Library of Congress have not yet been sent. Five months is not a lot of time as you don’t just dump items on the Library of Congress without doing a proper inventory and properly prepare the items.

    It is not surprising that the people who helped get Kameny’s earlier papers into the Library of Congress would want to insure these papers were protected. The GLBT community has lost a lot historical papers and other items because they have been destroyed by family or friends who were embarrassed by the items, did not understand, or did not recognize their historical value.

    Since the will left all the papers to the Library of Congress I am not clear on what Ackerman means when he says all the papers belong to Clark. At best Clark would be a temporarily custodian with an obligation to give them to the Library Of Congress once they are properly inventories and prepared.

    If I were to question anyone’s motive it would not be these four individuals. I notice the article does not explain if Clark sought out this attorney or if the attorney sought him out and if so why. What was the attorney’s involvement when Kameny was alive and could have used his assistance.

    This suit just goes to show that no good deed goes unpunished. I wish Clark all the best as that was Kameny’s desire and hope the attorney withdraws the suits and sits down with Clark and these individuals if he feels there are questions needing answers.

  • It is tragic that these self-appointed activists refuse to respect Frank Kameny’s last wishes. He obviously made a conscious decision in his will to leave everything to his friend and housemate Timothy Clark. Witeck and the others should settle this lawsuit, return the property to the estate, and allow the internment to proceed. For God’s sake, let the deceased rest in peace.

    • Agreed.

      And to another reader’s point, I’m not at all surprised that one of the best journalists in the country would note his newspaper’s relationship with Mr. Clark’s attorney.

      It appears Mr. Kameny’s estate is raising very serious questions, to which all of us deserve some answers.

      Moreover, IMHO, there are lots of outstanding ‘straight’ attorneys who can and do very, very capably and vigorously represent the interest of LGBT clients. But none, LGBT or straight, are better than Glen Ackerman.

  • Longtime Reader, please pay attention. Frank’s express wishes, as stated in his will, included that his papers go to the Library of Congress. The lawsuit was completely unnecessary. As for the interment, I myself had brief remarks prepared for the occasion and was very sorry that the event had to be canceled because of Mr. Ackerman’s insistence that the interment not proceed until the dispute he launched was resolved (about which he has been quite disingenuous). I helped choose Frank’s burial plot and grave markers. The facts show that those of us being sued have acted out of the highest respect for Frank. I worked with Frank for more than 30 years. Incidentally, I haven’t heard anyone suggest that Mr. Clark should not get the portion of the estate that Frank left to him. Of course he should, without it being drained away by legal fees. That we who have worked pro bono to help Frank and preserve his legacy are called thieves is more than false. It is obscene.

  • People in Washington always think they know best how to manage other people’s property. These four are just doing what they have been cultured to do. Disregarding the fact that the house and its contents do not belong to them, since in their minds they are smarter and serve a higher public good. That’s how we end up with eminent domain taking away people’s homes to build strip malls.

  • To Clark:

    I wish you sophisticate and listen to Rosendall’s advice. Nobody will be the winner in this kind of lawsuit, execpt the lawyer, who is the one laughs all the way to the bank.

    You can do the math, the house you got worth 730K, you minus all kinds of taxes first, then the fees your lawyers charge you, the fees your real estate agents charge you, and the fees your acct charge you. Those are all professionals, they won’t come cheap. Then take a look at the bottomline, You’ll find Rosendall is right about this.

    I wish you sit down with those people you sue, i don’t believe there is nothing you cannot solve with them. They are decent people and Dr.K’s long time friends and comrades, they can be your mentors like Dr.K too. You’ll benefit from them.

  • Bruce Majors completely disregards the facts. The defendants in this case, far from imposing our own interests, served Frank Kameny’s stated wishes as specified in his will. Frank attended the ceremony marking the delivery of the first batch of his papers to the Library of Congress in 2006. He was immensely grateful to Charles Francis in particular for his indefatigable efforts to preserve his (Frank’s) legacy, as well as for his personal assistance to Frank; Frank told me so many times. But you don’t have to take my word for it. The evidence that we were serving Frank’s wishes is plain and straightforward, as will become clear as the case proceeds. The glee with which some people hurl baseless accusations is rather amazing; that, too, is an all-too-popular Washington pastime. BTW, check out this blog entry by Michael Petrelis, who found some interesting stuff through Google:

  • I think that everyone would be better off if these issues were solved around a conference table and not in a courtroom. The four men being sued were all there for Frank Kameny in his later years. They worked to get him the credit and honors he deserved and worked to help him pay his bills. They did this as volunteers without compensation.

    While I have the greatest respect for Mr. Ackerman as an attorney I think that in the long run this lawsuit may be a disservice to his client who by all accounts is a decent guy but has no real knowledge or interest in the work that Kameny did. He seemed rather to be a personal friend to Kameny which was great. His client seems to have inheritied everything in the estate that wasn’t left to the Library of Congress and I am sure that the four will happily return anything they took that they felt needed safekeeping to him.

    As to their asking to be indemnified from further legal action that is something anyone would ask for and it has nothing to do with hiding anything or having done anything wrong. Rather it is simply that we live in a very litigeous society and once you are sued by someone you are always wary of the next lawsuit.

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