"HOW DO YOU win and still lose?" Armen Yousoufian says. "Ask me." He sits with his attorney in a corner booth of the Excalibur restaurant at Yousoufian's hotel, University Plaza on North 45th Street, rain streaking the windows. Just hours earlier, the dapper, slightly graying hotelier, 55, was pawing through one of his new haunts, a dusty government records depository called King County Archives. He found more promising documents he hopes will lead to another embarrassing lawsuit against the county. In a decision few noticed, Superior Court Judge Kathleen Learned awarded Yousoufian a record $114,000 from the county last October. Yousoufian says for three years King County Executive Ron Sims and King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng stonewalled his requests for records on the deal making behind Paul Allen's new $1 billion football stadium, approved in 1997 by a 51 percent to 49 percent public ballot and now nearing completion. Their offices stalled Yousoufian, when, as Learned said in a 31-page decision, the Open Records Act demands they provide "the fullest assistance possible." They claimed to have spent hundreds of hours on requests that Learned said could have been filled in a few days. They claimed to not have documents that they "found" years later, after Yousoufian dogged them.
"What a county councilman told us off the record," says Yousoufian between hurried bites of a ham sandwich, "is when the county has documents it doesn't want you to see or can lead to damages, the unwritten policy is don't release them."
"Usually," interjects attorney Michael Brannan, "the requester just goes away. If not, the county will take its chances with a public disclosure lawsuit, which can be costly for a citizen to wage."
"They picked on the wrong Armenian," says Yousoufian, his smile flickering. "I was wealthy and had too much time on my hands." He also had an inquisitive young daughter who first piqued his interest with a question about Safeco Field. Why was it built next to a perfectly good stadium, the Kingdome, that already had a roof on it?
"I couldn't really answer her," says Yousoufian. "I heard Sims and [Gov.] Gary Locke and others try to justify these stadiums. I didn't necessarily disagree. I was just trying to be a well-informed citizen and find out." He came to question how tax money was used to support billionaire Allen. Who could he see about that? Where are the contracts?
And a documents diver was born. "One day I walked into the courthouse and asked where the records were," Yousoufian says. "I learned how to make a records request. Then the stonewalling began." Though he proved that in court, "Right now, I don't have a clean victory. It cost me $140,000 to get back $114,000. In that way I lose." Learned awarded him just $80,000 for his legal fees; the rest is for fines and other costs. Yousoufian wanted $30 million.
"I knew I wouldn't win anything like that," he says. "I wanted to get the county's attention. A lot of our problems might get fixed if citizens were freely allowed to find out exactly how some of these decisions are really made. We can't even keep our parks open today."
Yousoufian is now appealing the damages award, although he finally has many of the documents he wanted. What do they say? He lays them on the table, some in fat three-ring binders. "The fix was in," says Yousoufian. "The public and the stadium task force were not told these studies were rigged. They were passed off as independent."
One document notes that Allen didn't like the outcome of a taxpayer study and demanded a new one. Another contradicts the economic analysis used to justify the Kingdome implosion. "Huge misrepresentations were made to the public," says Yousoufian, who is weighing a class-action suit on behalf of taxpayers. "Just today I found more on the Allen consultant who went to work for Gov. Locke. He put the stadium vote deal together. Then he returns to Allen's employment!"
Yousoufian puts down his papers, pausing. "Am I getting all bent out of shape for nothing?" he asks. "The stadium's built. Does anyone really care?" Then he brightens. "But who knows what I'll find in the archives tomorrow."