In the spring she was crowned queen of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, Washington's goodwill ambassador to Japan. Now 24-year-old Shannon Kula is set to fly to Tokyo, where she will meet a fellow cherry blossom queen, hobnob with top officials and plant the cherished cherry trees.
One problem: She might have to leave her crown at home.
And her sash, her ribbon and anything else that bears the words: "National Cherry Blossom Festival Queen." Her highness, it seems, is embroiled in a contentious legal battle involving the cherry blossom hierarchy.
The phrase "Queen and her Court" has taken on an awkward new meaning.
Kula, a legislative aide to Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), isn't accused of any wrongdoing by either side in the fight. "I really don't have any information," she said yesterday. "Unfortunately, I can't talk to you."
The allegations are going back and forth between the National Cherry Blossom Festival Inc. and the National Conference of State Societies, two organizations that work on Washington's premier springtime event, which draws hundreds of thousands of people to the cherry trees, a parade and parties. The National Cherry Blossom Festival Inc. is the official event organizer.
Yesterday, the National Cherry Blossom Festival filed suit in U.S. District Court, demanding that the state societies stop using its name. Both nonprofit organizations raise cash, and the festival's lawyers contend state societies have been confusing potential donors with "misleading representations" as to the groups' affiliation.
Festival officials said Kula is about to depart on a two-week trip to Japan with the state societies, and they don't want the rival group to raise funds abroad.
"The National Cherry Blossom Festival Queen holds herself out to the world as being sponsored or affiliated with the National Cherry Blossom Festival," says the lawsuit, which argues that state societies should not be allowed to use her for fund-raising purposes. The court papers don't say how much money is at stake but maintain that fund-raising is critical to the festival.
Paul Skrabut, president of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, said in a statement that the lawsuit is meant to decide who controls the name.
"We have a serious responsibility to our American and Japanese sponsors, our partners, our membership, our volunteers, and most of all the hundreds of thousands of guests who participate in the annual two-week event," he said.
But the litigation also has a more immediate purpose. The festival's lawyers want a court order to block the state societies from escorting or chaperoning anyone who wears the official cherry blossom festival crown and other regalia to any public or private fund-raising event in the United States or Japan. Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, who is hearing the Microsoft antitrust case, has scheduled an emergency hearing for Tuesday.
The two organizations have their own devoted followings. The National Cherry Blossom Festival, an umbrella organization of business leaders, civic groups and government, is the official sponsor with a registered name. The National Conference of State Societies, which has its own high-profile leaders, includes 55 societies representing the states and U.S. territories. By tradition, they select the festival's princesses and queen, albeit not without controversy.
The two have had public spats, the lowest point reached in 1994 when separate queens were chosen and separate balls held. But by 1997, with encouragement from the Japanese Embassy, they signed a truce--a "memorandum of understanding" that laid out responsibilities.
The president of the state societies, Glenn Mahone, took a place on the festival's board of directors and got to arrange last year's trip to Japan. But this year tensions flared anew, with allegations that Mahone and his group were holding back $12,000 raised at the spring gala. Letters that are part of the lawsuit indicate Mahone was removed from the board, prompting a nasty written exchange.
In a letter to Skrabut last month, Mahone said his group agreed to set aside differences two years ago "with high hopes of continuing a Washington, D.C., tradition of cultural understanding between our nation and the country of Japan. Yet for the past two years, we have been received with nothing but hostility and disdain towards our organization."
Mahone did not return telephone messages yesterday.
Kula is scheduled to arrive in Japan on Oct. 6. She will be welcomed at the airport by the Japanese cherry blossom queen, crown and all.
CAPTION: A lawsuit may decide who can use: "Cherry Blossom Festival."