Fate of Armenian museum may hinge on love of glass art

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 11, 2011 

WASHINGTON — A rancorous legal fight over a proposed Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial is flaming up once more amid claims that a glass-loving federal judge might have been biased in her decision-making.

In an unexpected twist, the Armenian Assembly of America this week demanded a new trial to reopen the long-running dispute over the proposed museum. The Armenian Assembly contends that the original trial judge was too close to the wealthy retired businessman who prevailed in the museum lawsuit late last year.

Bizarrely, the fight now turns on the judge's and the businessman's apparently shared passion for modern glass art.

"The undisclosed common interest and relationship may have biased the outcome of the bench trial," attorney Richard Chaivetz declared in the Armenian Assembly's latest legal filing.

An attorney for retired businessman and philanthropist Gerard Cafesjian called the bid for a new trial frivolous.

"The motion is baseless," attorney John B. Williams said. "To suggest any bias on the judge's part because of this is absurd."

How the matter is resolved could resonate in California, Florida, Massachusetts and other regions with sizable Armenian-American populations.

The dispute involves plans for a 50,000-square-foot Armenian genocide museum, slated for construction on a former bank site several blocks from the White House. The museum would commemorate the events of 1915 to 1923, when by some accounts more than 1 million Armenians died at the hands of the Ottoman Empire.

A separate Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute already exists in Armenia's capital city of Yerevan. Its director, Dr. Hayk Demoyan, will speak March 21 in Fresno, Calif., in a program sponsored by California State University, Fresno.

The proposed U.S. museum got rolling in the mid-1990s with several large donations and pledges, including major assistance from Cafesjian. He made his fortune with West Publishing, which produces legal books.

The Armenian Assembly ultimately accused Cafesjian and his allies of mismanaging museum planning. Cafesjian, in turn, felt he was poorly treated, and a series of suits and countersuits effectively stopped the museum in its tracks.

In January, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly issued a 190-page ruling that largely sided with Cafesjian and ordered the museum property returned to the Cafesjian Family Foundation. So far, that hasn't happened.

"While the court hopes that the properties can be used for (the museum), the court recognizes that the (foundation) is not legally obligated to use the properties to build a museum," Kollar-Kotelly wrote.

A Clinton administration appointee, Kollar-Kotelly has served on the federal bench since 1997. She's overseen high-profile cases that include a sweeping antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft and others challenging White House secrecy.

After the judge issued her museum decision, Armenian Assembly attorneys say, they discovered her common artistic ground with Cafesjian.

In 1999, the attorneys say, Kollar-Kotelly, her husband and Cafesjian provided a joint gift to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. That gift was the purchase of Vestment II, a glass piece produced by an artist Cafesjian also intended to feature at the Armenian museum.

"Judge Kollar-Kotelly failed to disclose that (she) and her husband have a substantial interest in contemporary glass art that overlaps with Cafesjian's interests," Chaivetz argued. "These interests created a situation where Judge Kollar-Kotelly's impartiality may be questioned."

A date hasn't yet been set for the judge to rule. Williams predicted that Kollar-Kotelly will dismiss the motion.

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