Questions continue to plague planned Armenian memorial in D.C.

McClatchy Washington BureauJuly 18, 2014 

— Empty buildings and the rubble of ruined relationships occupy the site where an Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial was supposed to rise.

Legal fees drained coffers. Courtroom battles aired dirty laundry. Key alliances were torn asunder, and long-term plans evaporated. Now a top appellate court’s ruling presents the latest challenge _ and, perhaps, opportunity _ for the ghost museum once slated to open in 2011.

“We are both happy and relieved that this lengthy legal process has finally come to an end,” Kathleen Cafesjian Baradaran, the chair of the Cafesjian Family Foundation, a human services foundation to aid Armenians, said in a statement.

On Monday, capping seven years of all-out legal war, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit unanimously upheld a trial judge’s decision awarding ownership of the proposed museum’s downtown D.C. site to the Minnesota-based Cafesjian foundation.

The ruling by the three-judge panel rejected claims by the Armenian Assembly of America, which at one time worked closely with the Cafesjian foundation on the project. A subsequent falling-out led to consequences that are still sorting themselves out.

“What began as a single lawsuit to collect on an unpaid promissory note quickly escalated into a morass of litigation,” Judge Robert L. Wilkins noted.

Underscoring the ugliness of the legal tangle, the appellate court had to consolidate 10 cases filed by various parties. As part of the ruling, the appellate court upheld a trial judge’s order that the Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial pay Cafesjian’s team $1.4 million in attorneys’ fees.

The museum’s foundation had assets worth $1.4 million in 2012, as well as $1.8 million in liabilities, according to tax filings.

On a separate legal track, the Cafesjian legal team last month appealed a D.C. Superior Court’s rejection of an effort to involuntarily dissolve the Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial organization. This case now goes to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, a different court from the one that ruled Monday.

For the museum, the next steps are unclear.

Baradaran didn’t respond to a question about the Cafesjian Family Foundation’s plans, while Hirair Hovnanian, the chair of the Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial, said, “We hope the Cafesjian heirs keep the promise Gerry (Cafesjian) made to the courts, which was to use this property to build a museum.”

One possibility, after the dust settles, is for museum planners to pursue another location. Another is that the Cafesjian Family Foundation would assume responsibility for building a museum. The idea might also evolve into something less ambitious.

A businessman and philanthropist who died last year in Naples, Fla., at the age of 88, Gerard Cafesjian and the Armenian Assembly started off as allies in the effort to build a center marking the period from 1915 to 1923. By some estimates, 1.5 million Armenians died at the hands of the Ottoman Empire.

In downtown Washington, project supporters bought a four-story National Bank of Washington building in 2000. Cafesjian provided funding and bought adjacent properties, with a clause that the properties would revert to his control if the project wasn’t finished by Dec. 31, 2010.

Relations collapsed in 2006 and lawsuits began flying like arrows in 2007, causing donations to dry up and putting the $100 million fundraising goal well out of reach. In 2012, tax records show, the museum’s foundation reported contributions of only $10,395.

“These fundraising difficulties . . . were due in substantial part to ongoing litigation implicating the museum project,” Wilkins noted Monday.

In 2011, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ruled that the property belonged to Cafesjian’s foundation.

“The court sincerely hopes that after years of fighting legal battles, the parties can put aside their differences and accomplish the laudable goal of creating an Armenian genocide museum and memorial,” Kollar-Kotelly wrote in January 2011.

Instead, more appeals followed and teams continued to fracture.

Former Cafesjian lieutenant John J. Waters Jr., at one time a key player in museum planning, was convicted in Minneapolis earlier this year of 25 felony counts relating to embezzlement from Cafesjian. Prosecutors say Waters took more than $4.1 million, an amount that his attorneys dispute.

Prosecutors on July 11 urged a sentence of 108 to 135 months. Prosecutors cited Waters’ “false testimony” during civil litigation over the proposed museum as one reason for a stiffer sentence.

Waters’ attorneys, in their own documents filed July 11, asked for a sentence of no longer than 36 months. The attorneys cited, among other reasons, Waters’ work on behalf of the proposed museum. As part of the package, attorneys included a handsome color photograph of the downtown Washington site on which the museum is supposed to grow one day.

Email: mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10.

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