Dispute Roils Plans to Build Museum

The Associated Press
Friday, October 12, 2007; 8:17 PM

WASHINGTON -- As diplomatic tensions flare over a House committee's approval of a resolution labeling the World War I-era killings of Armenians in Turkey as genocide, another dispute has roiled plans to build a museum and memorial to the victims.

In a series of lawsuits, the Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial and its backers are wrestling with a major donor over control and finances of the long-planned project honoring the hundreds of thousands of Armenians who died between 1915 and 1917. The memorial would be the first permanent exhibit dedicated to the subject outside of Armenia.

Museum organizers say the litigation won't affect the redevelopment of a former bank just a few blocks from the White House. First conceived in the 1990s, the museum recently signed contracts for design and planning of the 35,000-square foot facility.

But a major funder, retired Armenian-American publisher Gerard Cafesjian, has filed several lawsuits that seek to reclaim much of the $15 million in money and property he donated. Cafesjian claims the museum has forced him out of the project and significantly scaled it down.

"Mr. Cafesjian is the museum," said his attorney, Tim Thornton. "Gerry Cafesjian is 90 percent responsible for everything the museum has."

The museum has countersued, claiming Cafesjian is meddling with real estate titles for the bank and other property to be used for the museum. The museum argues Cafesjian has tried to use the nonprofit venture for personal gain, and is trying to get his contributions back to cash in on a big increase in the property's value.

"He has done everything he can to scuttle the building of the genocide museum," said Arnold Rosenfeld, an attorney for the nonprofit group behind the project.

The museum is intended to memorialize and study the killings of Armenians in the Turkish Ottoman Empire during World War I. Armenians claim it was a systematic genocide that killed 1.5 million people; Turkey says the death totals are inflated and that the killings were largely the result of internal civil strife, not organized mass murder.

Earlier this week, the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed a resolution labeling the killings as genocide despite opposition from President Bush and Turkish-American groups. Turkish officials condemned the vote and Turkey's ambassador to the United States returned to Ankara this week for consultations.

The Bush administration, worried about alienating a strategically important U.S. ally, is trying to patch up diplomatic relations with Turkey and has warned against passage of the resolution by the full House.

Plans for the museum came out of the Armenian Assembly of America, a Washington-based advocacy group that helped push for the congressional resolution. According to court papers, assembly leaders in the 1990s approached Cafesjian, who agreed to use his foundation to help buy the bank for $7.25 million. Plans initially called for the museum to open by 2002 at a cost of $40 million.

Cafesjian, born to Armenian parents in the United States, came from a family that lost numerous relatives during the killings, according to Thornton. He was a top executive for Minnesota-based legal publisher West Publishing, retiring after it was sold to Thompson Corp. in 1996. Now living in Florida, he is building an art museum named after himself in Armenia.

In court filings, the genocide museum claims Cafesjian tried to dominate planning of the Washington museum, proposing a $100 million project on a much grander scale. He purchased several buildings surrounding the bank that were eventually transferred to the museum for his expanded plans.

By 2006, Cafesjian's ties to the museum's board had soured as he and other directors sparred over governing issues, control of the project and its scope. In April 2007, he filed suit in Minnesota, seeking a return of his contributions. He has filed similar lawsuits in Washington.

Cafesjian was not available for comment, Thornton said. The lawyer said Cafesjian does not object to construction of a museum, but does not want a "paltry" scaled down version.

"We have been completely cut out of the process," Thornton said.

The museum alleges in court filings that Cafesjian tried to use the nonprofit for his own gain, tapping contacts of the Armenian Assembly of America to build media, real estate and other business ventures in Armenia. And they claim he is stalling the museum to use a clause that allows donor property to be returned if the project is not completed by 2010.

Van Krikorian, chairman of the museum's committee, would not comment on the lawsuit. But he said Cafesjian's claims to the museum buildings and other contributions won't threaten development of the project. Other contributors have been found, and the museum plans a major fundraising push now that planning work has finally begun.

"Plans are being implemented for a museum that the entire Armenian community can be proud of well within the reach of 2010," he said.

© 2007 The Associated Press