Armenian genocide museum case grinds on at great cost

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 25, 2011 

WASHINGTON — A legal fight over a proposed Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial has now cost museum backers well more than $1 million, and the expenses keep rising.

This week, attorneys for the retired businessman who won a lawsuit to reclaim the museum site near the White House asked for $2.8 million in fees, plus additional sanctions. The money would come from the nonprofit organization established to build the museum, which lost the lawsuit.

All of which seriously clouds the museum's future.

"Hopefully, the judge will resolve this case quickly," John B. Williams, the winning attorney, who represents retired businessman and philanthropist Gerard Cafesjian, said Friday. "I want this case to be over."

But inevitably, as U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly predicted last year, "this is not going to be simple."

Attorney Eric I. Abraham, who represents the museum and the Armenian Assembly of America, charged that Cafesjian is trying to undermine the project by squeezing money from it.

"It shows his desire to impoverish the museum and make sure it's never built," Abraham said Friday.

The proposed 50,000-square-foot facility would commemorate the horrific events of 1915-23, when the Ottoman Empire slaughtered Armenians. The museum site is a four-story National Bank of Washington building, two blocks from the White House.

First mentioned in the 1990s, the proposed museum is described by backers as "the premier institution in the United States dedicated to educating American and international audiences about the Armenian genocide."

Museum fundraising has targeted Armenian-Americans, who are heavily concentrated in regions that include Boston, Michigan and California's San Joaquin Valley. This week, attorneys filed under court seal a list of all the museum donors since 2006.

In January, after extended litigation, Kollar-Kotelly ruled that the proposed museum site belonged to Cafesjian. He and the Armenian Assembly of America had worked together on the museum before they had a falling-out.

Cafesjian remains interested in pursuing the construction of a museum, Williams has said.

The Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial nonprofit reported spending a little more than $1 million on legal fees in 2008 and 2009, according to tax filings. While attorneys' fees for 2010 haven't yet been reported, they'll be considerable. The trial alone lasted 12 days last year, preceded by the filing of more than 100 legal documents from both sides.

The Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial Inc. reported having less than $100,000 in available cash as of the end of 2009, tax records show.

Separately, the Armenian Assembly of America reported spending $360,000 on attorney fees in 2009.

The genocide museum indemnified Cafesjian against the cost of potential legal action when he served on the museum's board. Usually, such indemnification agreements protect against the danger of a third-party lawsuit. This legal fight, though, presents a different twist: The museum must pay the attorneys' fees associated with Cafesjian's battle with the museum itself.

Williams, who's with the firm Jones Day, filed the application Thursday for $2.8 million in fees. In addition, Williams is asking for an unspecified amount of punitive fees because of what he calls the Armenian Assembly of America's "unreasonable and vexatious" courtroom tactics.

Those tactics "have touched on all aspects of this case, needlessly multiplying the issues that had to be resolved, and improperly prolonging and complicating this litigation," Williams declared in his latest brief.

Abraham, with the firm Hill Wallack, has, in turn, formally requested a new trial, contending that Kollar-Kotelly and Cafesjian had previously undisclosed common ground because they both donated to a New York museum's purchase of decorative glass. Cafesjian's attorneys call the claim frivolous.

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