2008-10-02 / Local & State

Tiny Borough Fighting Over Philanthropist's Estate

EXPORT, Pa. (AP) - A small community in western Pennsylvania stands to benefit from a multimillion dollar gift - if only officials can stop fighting over it.

Philanthropist J.M. Hall Jr. left about $3.6 million to the tiny borough of Export. But that largesse is on hold - as is the rest of Hall's $5.5 million estate - while Export officials argue about who should control the money.

"I think this whole thing is a fiasco,'' said Jim Ripple, a lifelong friend of Hall's. "If he knew what was going to happen, he would have found someone else to leave his money to.''

Hall, the owner of a construction company and former Murrysville councilman, died of cancer in April 2006 at age 77.

He bequeathed about $950,000 in property and other assets to Export, where he liked to spend time with friends, played Santa Claus every year, and was so beloved that the community held a Junior Hall Day a few years ago.

Hall established a trust to control an additional $2.7 million, with the interest to be used to beautify Export, a town of 900 about 20 miles east of Pittsburgh. Those interest payments could provide roughly $135,000 a year, depending on investment returns, for projects such as improving roads and parks.

But Hall's will did not specify who should serve as trustees. His attorney, Earnest Long, said Hall told him who should serve as trustees; on that basis, Long successfully petitioned the court after Hall's death to name as trustees Long's son - the borough solicitor - as well as the borough council president, a former councilman and two local businessmen.

Export Mayor Robert Campagna contends those administrators have a conflict of interest because some are directly involved with borough government. Campagna believes the trustees should be financial experts, said his attorney, Laura Cohen.

"This is ugly,'' Cohen said. "I don't think it's a power play. He (Campagna) doesn't want to control the money.''

A hearing will be held Oct. 14 to review the status of Hall's estate. At that point, a judge could order the funds distributed to all the parties named in Hall's will.

Cohen said Campagna has asked the attorney general's office, which oversees charitable trusts, to investigate. A spokesman for the attorney general would neither confirm nor deny an investigation.

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