Battle over Armenian genocide museum in D.C. gets nasty

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 6, 2009 

WASHINGTON — A nasty legal fight complicates plans for an Armenian genocide museum, and it shows no sign of abating.

On Friday, attorneys for the warring parties who once were close allies met again in a District of Columbia courtroom. There was no peace agreement, only the prospect of many more months of wrangling.

"The clients are very hostile to each other right now," attorney Arnold Rosenfeld advised a federal judge last year, a court transcript shows.

Rosenfeld represents the Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial Inc. On a site two blocks from the White House, the non-profit organization proposes to build "the premier institution in the United States dedicated to educating American and international audiences about the Armenian Genocide."

The museum potentially has high appeal in regions with large Armenian-American populations. It's been discussed since the mid-1990s, and planners say they want the 35,000-square-foot facility open before 2011.

But a bad falling out with a major donor has been diverting time, energy and money. The one-time donor, retired millionaire businessman Gerard Cafesjian, is suing to reclaim his donations. Cafesjian, in turn, is being sued by museum organizers for allegedly trying to interfere with their work.

The competing lawsuits now resemble a bad divorce, where mutual rancor feeds on itself and prior intimacies become potential vulnerabilities.

"I must say, I'm very irritated," U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly warned lawyers in August, a court transcript shows. "These cases are not a good use of judicial resources and, frankly, probably not of your client's resources, either."

On Thursday, in a ruling that keeps the lawsuits alive, Kollar-Kotelly nonetheless characterized them as "very unfortunate."

"If you're disputing about money, it's going to become bitter," noted Barlow Der Mugrdechian, coordinator of the Armenian Studies Program at California State University, Fresno. "It's not going to go away soon."

When completed, the museum will commemorate the events between 1915 and 1923, when by some estimates upward of 1.5 million Armenians died during the final years of the Ottoman Empire.

Architects are already designing the project for the corner of 14th and G streets in downtown Washington. The city's Historic Preservation Review Board last year gave conceptual approval to use of the existing 83-year-old National Bank of Washington building.

The Armenian Assembly of America initiated the museum planning and in 2003 secured an agreement with Cafesjian and the Cafesjian Family Foundation. There then followed a series of complicated transactions.

The foundation granted and pledged roughly $15 million to help the Armenian Assembly buy the four-story National Bank of Washington building and four adjacent pieces of property. The donation included an agreement that if the museum isn't developed by Dec. 31, 2010, the Cafesjian foundation can get either its money or the property back.

Cafesjian is a World War II Navy veteran who made his fortune as an executive at West Publications, a Minnesota company that handles legal publications. He is described by his supporters as a well-meaning benefactor.

"Cafesjian has dedicated his largess to the Armenian people, Armenian nation, and Armenian causes," his attorneys stated in one legal filing.

But problems became apparent by October 2006, when a Cafesjian ally filed legal documents that allegedly clouded the title of the museum property. The museum organizers subsequently claimed Cafesjian was "actively taking steps to delay the development" in hopes of regaining the property for his own purposes.

Cafesjian filed his own lawsuit, claiming that the museum's board of directors deliberately shut him out from key planning decisions.

"Unfortunately, rather than becoming more cooperative, relations among trustees were increasingly divisive," Cafesjian's attorneys summed up in one legal filing.

The bitterness is apparent in voluminous legal filings.

Museum organizers make Cafesjian out to be a profit-seeking egotist, as they described his plans for a giant "Cafesjian Art Museum" next door to a "grandiose" genocide museum that would feature an enormous "Cafesjian Memorial."

Illustrating the prevailing mood, attorney Arnold Rosenfeld suggested that Cafesjian, who turned 84 last year, might manipulate a health excuse to avoid giving a deposition.

"Cafesjian's health issues have occurred with particular frequency at times when decisions regarding matters involving the (lawsuits) have been required or when his presence with regard to the actions has been important," Rosenfeld stated in a Jan. 30 affidavit.

Rosenfeld declined Friday to comment on the genocide museum lawsuits when approached outside the courtroom. He had earlier asked the judge to impose a gag rule on the two sides, noting that "all they do is insult each other," but he indicated Friday no formal gag rule was in place.

One of Cafesjian's attorneys, Nancy Berardinelli-Krantz, likewise declined to comment on the case. Representatives of the Armenian Assembly were traveling Friday and could not be reached.

In coming weeks, the various lawyers and representatives will be meeting again in Minnesota, Massachusetts, Florida and elsewhere for a series of pretrial depositions, setting the stage for their future jousting.

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(e-mail: mdoyle(at)mcclatchydc.com)

McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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