Is the Armenian Assembly leadership part of the community or part of the problem?
Published: Wednesday June 29, 2011
The most ambitious and most pressing project before the Armenian diaspora today is the development, by April 24, 2015, of an Armenian Genocide memorial and museum in Washington.
This unprecedented, permanent tribute to our martyred forebears is long overdue and has been unnecessarily delayed. Its commanding presence just two blocks from the White House will be an ongoing reminder of our past and a warning against forgetting. Its exhibits and educational activities, as well as its work to prevent genocide, will be part of our collective contribution to a brighter future for humanity. Through research and documentation, through outreach, and through effective use of technology, it will be a resource for the United States and the world.
We know we need to build this museum by April 24, 2015, the one-hundredth anniversary of the Genocide. We know the Armenian nation has the desire, the resources, and the determination to make this project a reality.
The project has been tied up in the courts, as is well known. Upon prevailing in the litigation, the Cafesjian Family Foundation renewed its longstanding commitment to completing the project with the full participation of the Armenian community. That is the only way the project can be completed, and that is how it must be completed.
When the federal district judge rendered her decision on January 26, 2011, the Cafesjian Family Foundation was ready to move forward without delay. The expectation was that title to the properties would be handed over promptly and unconditionally – as required by the original grant agreement of 2003 and as ordered by the judge. Alas, the leadership of the Armenian Assembly of America chose a different route. Its choice has been to do everything in its power to delay and hence undermine the project.
In any dispute, there's a time to pause and ask oneself, “What am I trying to achieve?” If the Assembly leadership wants to see the museum built, and built promptly, then it should stop obstructing progress.
In a court document filed on June 21, the Armenian Assembly claimed that it “hopes and intends to be a part of” the Armenian Genocide museum and memorial and stands behind “means of fostering community support.” The Cafesjian Family Foundation, in turn, has stated repeatedly that it seeks the participation of the whole community, including the Armenian Assembly, to develop the entire property assemblage for the exclusive purpose of an Armenian Genocide museum and memorial.
So why does the Assembly leadership insist on blocking the project? If the Assembly's leaders truly want this project to move forward, here's what they can do:
1. End the media campaign to retry the case now that it is over
If you wish to foster community support for the project, do not send out news releases repeating allegations that have already been rejected in court.
In the recent open letter from Hirair Hovnanian and in the press release signed by Joyce Philibosian Stein and Joe Stein, there are many statements that are incorrect.
Of course, it's simple to do a point-by-point refutation of these statements. Indeed, it's tempting to respond with stories of how the bad conduct of some of the principals of the Armenian Assembly was exposed in court. But this sort of public argument neither helps move the project forward nor helps foster community support for the project.
In a sense, the most harmful myth promoted by the Assembly's various news releases is the notion that the legal controversy has not been resolved. It is inconceivable that the fundamental finding in the case – that the reversion clause of the grant agreement is valid and enforceable – will be overturned. The appeal process will waste legal fees and time, but it will not change the outcome.
2. Drop the appeal
The only consequence of the proposed appeal will be to squander more time and money. Anyone who has read the judge's careful and conservative decision will understand this.
The bulk of the Grant Property was donated conditionally by Gerard L. Cafesjian and the Cafesjian Family Foundation; under a reversion clause, the entire Grant Property would revert to the donor if the museum and memorial were not finished by the end of 2010. Mr. Cafesjian inserted a reversion clause for two reasons: First, to provide an ample, ten-year incentive to complete the project. And second, to guard against anyone for any reason selling off or borrowing against the essential additional properties he had acquired and donated for the exclusive purpose of an expanded Armenian Genocide museum and memorial.
The plaintiffs in the case – the Armenian Assembly, et al. – sought to invalidate the reversion clause. Assembly officials made various arguments. For example, they claimed that they had not known about the clause. Aside from the fact that responsible men and women are expected to read multimillion dollar agreements before signing them, it was shown in court that they had in fact discussed the reversion clause and negotiated it – and indeed, Hirair Hovnanian had included a similar clause in his own grant agreement!
The important point is that the Cafesjian Family Foundation is ready to invite the community to join forces and move forward with the project – and the Assembly's leaders know this. So why drag out the litigation? Why continue to pay lawyers instead of paying builders?
3. Vacate the property
The Armenian Assembly continues to occupy part of the Grant Property and asserts a right to stay there until the end of 2015. Were it to stay, it would be impossible to tear down the building in question and build the museum by April 24, 2015.
The now-defunct entity that held the properties until recently, after illegally expelling the Cafesjian Family Foundation's designee from the board, had signed a lease with the Assembly. They signed this lease with tenancy lasting through 2015 even though the grant agreement stipulated that control of the property would revert to Mr. Cafesjian or the Cafesjian Family Foundation after the end of 2010.
The Cafesjian Family Foundation is arguing in court that the lease is invalid as a matter of “black-letter law.” But if the Assembly wants the project to move forward, it can do the right thing and move out right away. The Assembly can pay rent to anyone in a building far more suited to its advocacy purpose. But the Assembly's leaders insist on remaining in a tear-down building, effectively preventing the community from proceeding with the vital task at hand. Why?
4. Dissolve AGMM voluntarily
Another siphon of money and time is the need to go to court over the continued existence of the Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial, Inc. This was the entity established in 2003 by unanimous consent of the Assembly, the Cafesjian Family Foundation, and the Armenian National Institute – which became a subsidiary of the corporation. Its publicly declared purpose was to develop the museum and memorial. Since the Grant Property has reverted, this entity now has no assets to speak of, and no property on which to build a memorial and museum. Instead, it has a mountain of debt and no prospect of covering it. Its officers remain hopelessly deadlocked over any meaningful way forward. It is time to begin anew.
5. Join in a pan-Armenian effort to get the project done promptly
The Armenian Assembly can be part of the effort to bring this project to fruition. Stop attempting to retry a lost case in the media, drop the appeal, vacate the property, and dissolve AGMM voluntarily. Choose to be part of the community and not part of the problem. Join a united community effort or step aside.