Trial over Armenian museum ends, but battle continues

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 3, 2010 

WASHINGTON — A bitter legal fight over a proposed Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial has only grown nastier, though the trial has ended.

The case pitting former allies against each other is in the hands of a federal judge, after a bench trial that concluded Monday. The costly, competing lawsuits have hindered construction of the museum, proposed for a site near the White House.

The dispute pitting the Armenian Assembly of America against a former benefactor also has provoked muscular legal maneuvers. One side contended earlier this week that Armenian Assembly witnesses had lied under oath. Armenian Assembly attorneys strongly reject that claim.

"The judge said she was hoping to issue a decision by the end of the year," museum trustee Van Krikorian said Friday.

Krikorian is also a trustee of the Armenian Assembly, the nation's largest nonpartisan Armenian-American advocacy organization. It draws considerable support from California's San Joaquin Valley and other regions with sizable Armenian-American populations.

The Armenian Assembly initiated the genocide museum idea more than a decade ago. The nonprofit Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial Inc. now owns a former bank site on 14th Street Northwest, two blocks from the White House.

Planners bill the 50,000-square-foot project as a place to commemorate what they call "the 20th century's first genocide," the slaughter of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1923.

"This place of gathering, this center for Americans and Armenians alike, will be a world-class museum," the museum's website says. It also says the facility "is slated for opening before 2011," but this proved far too optimistic.

Instead, the dispute between museum officials and the Armenian Assembly on one side and retired businessman Gerard Cafesjian and his Cafesjian Family Foundation on the other has soaked up time, energy and money.

The Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial Inc. reported assets of $22.4 million and expenses of $1.5 million in 2008, the most recent year for which Internal Revenue Service filings are publicly available. Of those expenses, $941,799 covered legal fees.

The museum organization owes the District of Columbia about $190,000 in unpaid taxes this year, records from the Washington Office of Tax and Revenue show.

The museum "has incurred and will continue to incur substantial tax liability," Armenian Assembly attorneys said in a brief, further explaining that the museum "has been unable to raise funds or engage in fundraising" because of the dispute.

The legal claims and counterclaims are complex.

Cafesjian made his fortune with West Publishing, a Minnesota company that handles legal publications. His family foundation pledged roughly $15 million toward the museum, including purchasing the property.

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

Museum organizers, though, subsequently claimed that Cafesjian was interfering with the development in hopes of regaining the valuable property for his own purposes. They sued.

Cafesjian filed his own lawsuit, asserting that the museum's board of directors shut him out of key decisions. He wants to reclaim ownership of the museum site; initially, he also sought to be repaid more than $1 million.

"In light of (the Armenian Assembly's) refusal to let him participate and their attacks on him personally, it would be unjust to allow them to retain money that he donated," Cafesjian's attorneys said in a brief.

Starting Nov. 9, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly oversaw a bench trial that lasted 12 days.

On the trial's last day, the Cafesjian attorneys filed an unusual, 21-page statement alleging "untruthful testimony" by four Armenian Assembly witnesses. The attorneys cited supposed discrepancies with earlier depositions.

Armenian Assembly attorneys, in turn, said in a filing Wednesday that they "stand behind the credibility" of the witnesses, and they called the Cafesjian attorneys' claims "presumptuous."

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