If you go back 10 years, you see how little Armen Yousoufian was asking for: some papers. He wanted to make sure that King County officials were being honest about their deal-making for a new “$300 million” Seattle football stadium (the true price tag ended up closer to $1 billion with interest and other taxpayer costs). Yousoufian, a hotel owner in the University District, was worried about the impact of a hotel-motel tax to fund the stadium for billionaire Paul Allen. So he made a public records request to see internal documents and splash a bit of sunshine into the county’s back rooms.
The stadium, Qwest Field, has been operating for six years. Yousoufian, now semi-retired, still does not have all the documents he requested, nor does he have the full story of the county’s dealings with Allen. But for his pissed-off persistence, he may soon have a million dollars, he confirmed this week.
And he’d have been happy with less than half a million.
Yousoufian got the runaround under county executives Gary Locke and, later, Ron Sims, who stalled Yousoufian’s requests for five years, dating to 1997. He sued, and in 2001 a King County Superior Court judge found the county’s actions “egregious,” handing out a $5-a-day penalty. The $114,000 barely covered his legal fees, and didn’t send much of a message. So the sore winner appealed. A higher court upped the daily penalty—a judge can impose from $5 to $100 a day by law—and Yousoufian was eventually awarded more than $432,000. Again, most of this sum went toward his legal fees. But he’d made his point, and was willing to end the battle.
However, the county wasn’t. In 2007, it appealed. And on January 15, the state Supreme Court made it clear just how bad that move was. The county, wrote Justice Richard Sanders, snubbed Yousoufian, didn’t follow the law, and effectively penalized him for asking for public documents, making him refile his requests 11 times over two years. The case was sent back to a lower court to impose a penalty of perhaps twice what Yousoufian has already been rewarded—closer to $100 for each day of violation. As Yousoufian likes to say, “They picked on the wrong Armenian.”
The penalty, he said this week, “could be even more than a million, depending on how the court calculates it.” He wishes it were county officials paying it out of their pockets, he adds, rather than taxpayers. “But I hope this will finally send a very strong message. These aren’t their records. They are the public’s records.”