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Family Members Sue Over Control of Foundation

05/16/2002
on 5/16/02.

Family members of a late philanthropist have sued officers of the $17 million foundation bearing his name, accusing them of pushing the family out of the trust.

Edwin Morris' widow, Mary Cannon Morris, and the couple's son, Joseph Morris, sued the leaders of the E.A. Morris Charitable Foundation in Guilford County Superior Court.

The civil complaint filed May 10 says foundation president John Thomas "wrongfully seized control of the (foundation) for his personal benefit" and has tried to eliminate the Morris family from the foundation.

The Morrises contend they were wrongfully removed as members of the foundation's board of directors at a meeting in November.

Also named as defendants are Thomas' wife, Katharine, board vice president Barry Morgan and board director Dorothy Shaw.

Thomas, who runs the foundation out of his home in Durham, did not return a telephone message Thursday.

"Obviously, we don't agree with their view of the facts at all," Jack Walker, an attorney representing the foundation, said Wednesday. He would not elaborate.

The Morrises want the defendants to step down from the foundation, Thomas to pay the foundation $240,000 "improperly paid to him by the foundation" and to be reinstated as foundation members.

"All of this action was instigated and directed by John Thomas, and was and is unlawful," the lawsuit reads.

Thomas, who was the foundation's executive director, became president shortly after Morris died in 1998.

Thomas relocated the foundation's headquarters from Greensboro to his home in Durham, switched banks and instigated the election of his wife as an additional director, according to the lawsuit.

In 1999, Thomas began giving himself $60,000 per year from the foundation without the board's approval, the plaintiffs contend. A majority of the board approved increasing his compensation to $90,000 in 2000, while Morgan's compensation was doubled to $24,000, according to the lawsuit.

The foundation began in 1980 when Edwin Morris was chairman of Greensboro-based Blue Bell Inc., then the maker of Wrangler jeans.

Morris, known for his support of conservative causes and leaders such as Jesse Helms, gave about $5 million to the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center. That money was also used to expand the Edwin A. Morris Cancer Research Building there.

The foundation gave more than $1.2 million in grants and donations to groups including the cancer center, Greensboro Public Library, John Locke Foundation, Boy Scouts of America and the United Way of Greater Greensboro, according to tax records.

Thomas is a member of the foundation board for the conservative group Citizens for a Sound Economy, according to the group's Web site.