Debate over Armenian museum will continue at appellate hearing

04/18/2014 5:12 PM

04/21/2014 7:12 AM

The legal fight over a proposed Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial has lasted nearly as long as the horrors the project is supposed to commemorate.

Soon, the bitter wrangling will reach a crucial crossroads.

On Monday, in a courthouse about 10 blocks from the run-down site of the proposed museum, three appellate judges will sort through the dispute, which has outlasted several of the key parties. The museum’s future might hang in the balance.

“There is no doubt we are committed to building the museum in Washington, D.C.,” Edele Hovnanian, the treasurer of the Armenian Assembly of America’s board of trustees, said Friday. “We are absolutely committed.”

The case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit is still called Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial v. Gerard L. Cafesjian, though this has become a misnomer. Cafesjian, the businessman and philanthropist who won an earlier round, died last year in Naples, Fla., at the age of 88.

Another man once at the center of the dispute, former Cafesjian lieutenant John J. Waters Jr., was convicted last month in Minneapolis of 25 felony counts relating to embezzlement from Cafesjian. Waters is awaiting sentencing.

Years ago, Cafesjian, Waters and the Armenian Assembly of America leadership were allies. They wanted to build a center marking the period from 1915 to 1923, when by some estimates upward of 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 eventually collapsed and the first in a series of suits and countersuits was filed in 2007. In 2011, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ruled that the property belonged to Cafesjian’s foundation, of which Waters once served as vice president.

“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.

That hasn’t happened.

Instead, the fight that Kollar-Kotelly said “quickly escalated into an unfortunate exchange of accusations and allegations grounded in suspicion and mistrust” has ground ever onward. Though the museum has plans prepared and an online exhibit posted, the litigation has hindered efforts to raise the $100 million or so needed for construction and operations.

The Armenian Assembly of America has appealed its trial-court loss, contending in part that Kollar-Kotelly had previously undisclosed “ties” to the Cafesjian side. Kollar-Kotelly had contributed, as had Cafesjian, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s purchase of expensive modern glass art by an artist whom Cafesjian also sought for the Armenian genocide museum.

“If the assembly had known of the shared and beneficial interest between Judge Kollar-Kotelly and Cafesjian as investors in contemporary studio glass art, it would have moved for Judge Kollar-Kotelly’s disqualification,” attorneys for the Armenian Assembly of America declared in an appellate brief.

Attorneys for the Cafesjian Family Foundation didn’t address the judicial recusal question in their appellate brief, which focused on other parts of the dispute.

“I hope that the (appellate) decision will finally resolve the case,” the foundation’s attorney, John B. Williams, said Friday, while noting that “there is always the Supreme Court.”

The 30-minute oral argument Monday comes three days before the events that traditionally recognize the genocide. In this, Congress has likewise continued to struggle.

By a 12-5 vote, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a resolution April 10 that’s intended to “remember and observe the anniversary of the Armenian genocide.” That may be the resolution’s high-water mark.

Vigorously opposed by the Turkish government, and historically viewed skeptically within the State Department and the Pentagon, this genocide resolution has an uncertain future. Senate rules will make it easy for a single lawmaker to block the measure.

Turkey questions the casualty count and denies there was a systematic effort to exterminate the Armenian people. Some American diplomats and military professionals fear antagonizing Turkey, a key NATO ally.

A like-minded resolution in the House of Representatives, authored by freshman Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., and backed by 50 co-sponsors, hasn’t moved since it was introduced last year. Visiting Turkey this month, House Speaker John Boehner effectively called the measure dead.

“Don’t worry,” the Ohio Republican said, according to Turkish news accounts. “Our Congress will not get involved in this issue.”

In the meantime, lawmakers are participating in Armenian-American community events, with Valadao and Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., expected at a flag-raising ceremony Thursday at Fresno, Calif., City Hall and Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., joining the annual march through the Los Angeles-area Little Armenia.

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