Stonewalled on stadium, document request wound up in court
Armen Yousoufian was just trying to answer his 9-year-old daughter when she asked why, despite a public vote against it, a state-of-the-art baseball stadium was being built in the shadow of the Kingdome.
Marysia Yousoufian's simple question turned into a $30 million lawsuit against King County over public-records access.
Although Armen Yousoufian won a partial victory, he isn't satisfied.
It all started in 1995 when Yousoufian, owner of University Plaza Hotel in Seattle, couldn't answer his daughter's question.
King County voters that year had rejected raising local sales taxes to pay for a new baseball stadium. But state lawmakers and then-Gov. Mike Lowry met in emergency session and approved a different stadium-funding proposal.
At a breakfast for business leaders, Yousoufian put his daughter's question to then-King County Executive Gary Locke. He said he got no satisfactory answer.
After Locke became governor and Ron Sims county executive, Yousoufian heard Sims on radio, seeking public support for a new football stadium. Sims referred to studies that said a stadium-supporting fast-food tax had not been passed on to consumers and to a county-commissioned economic study that justified spending public money on the stadium.
Yousoufian wanted to see those studies. He doubted the fast-food tax had not trickled down to consumers, and he knew his tax money had helped pay for those studies. If the stadium were approved, his tax money would help pay to build it.
Yousoufian, a Vashon Island resident, has a master's degree in business administration. He's done countless real-estate deals. For every government purchase, he knows, there has to be a check and an accounting of expenses. He wanted to see those, too.
In May 1997, he filed a formal request for the documents, citing the Open Records Act, for "all file materials relating to and including the widely quoted Conway study."
"I got a hostile response," he said. "The receptionist wanted to know who I was and why I wanted this."
Passed from department to department, Yousoufian wrote numerous requests and letters but received only some information.
He was told his first request would take three weeks. He offered to pay for copies.
In June 1997, two weeks after Yousoufian's request to see the studies, a statewide public vote narrowly approved a financing plan for the new football stadium. But Yousoufian still didn't have what he'd asked for. Three years later, he was still waiting.
In March 2000, he sued. He has so far received more than 200 documents but not all of the paperwork he had sought.
Fines for noncompliance with state law are $5 to $100 per day. Yousoufian asked for the maximum per day per document.
In a court hearing last summer, the county admitted it had not fully complied in 1997. The county says it has fully complied now, though Yousoufian disagrees.
In her ruling, Superior Court Judge J. Kathleen Learned said Yousoufian's request had been handled by county employees who had not been adequately trained to handle public-disclosure requests. The county was negligent in responding on time and gave incorrect and incomplete information.
Staff members told Yousoufian that there were no more documents when the paperwork really did exist and that that they'd spent "hundreds of hours" working on his requests when it actually took two days.
Learned said the nondisclosure didn't seem intentional, but the negligence, misrepresentations and lack of organization amounted to bad faith.
She awarded Yousoufian more than $25,000 in fines for the documents some of which were 936 days late and more than $80,000 in attorney fees. The amounts were based on minimum fines.
Though he would not comment on the specifics of the case, Sims said his office has streamlined public-disclosure policy.
In 1997, each department dealt with public-records requests individually. Now, each is seen by Sims' chief of staff and attended to by attorneys in the prosecutor's office.
The county said it also has started a training program for public-disclosure officers.
"We want to be absolutely exhaustive in answering these requests," Sims said.
Yousoufian isn't convinced he has everything he seeks.
"This is a terrible result for citizens deprived of full and timely disclosure," he said. "... The judge agreed with virtually all of our facts, agreed that I was denied full and timely disclosure, but did not even make our side whole financially for what it took to get King County to disgorge the documents."
And Yousoufian still hasn't been able to answer his daughter's question.