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Bob Ferguson, Seattle National Archives
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AG Bob Ferguson issues ultimatum over ‘illegal’ decision to move Seattle National Archives

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson has issued an ultimatum to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) regarding “fatal flaw[s]” in a decision last month to shutter the National Archives in Seattle, move the materials to California, and sell the World War II-era warehouse and 10-acre property to the highest bidder.

AG Ferguson weighs legal action over Seattle National Archives closure

In the eight-page letter addressed to OMB Acting Director Russell Vought — as well as to staff and board members of the obscure federal agency known as the Public Buildings Reform Board (PBRB) — Ferguson writes, in plain language, that, “The decision is illegal and was made without consulting with local, state, or tribal officials.”

Ferguson cites the impact that closure of the facility will have on all users, but in particular, Native Americans.

“The decision of your agencies not to meet with or collaborate with local tribal officials as required by Executive Order 13175 and to wholly ignore the impact that removing tribal records from the region would have on tribes located in the Pacific Northwest is inexcusable and unacceptable,” he said.

The letter says that the OMB’s “decision also should be reconsidered and reversed because it suffers from numerous legal deficiencies,” and goes on to list multiple instances where actions taken by the PBRB – who carried out the work to identify so-called “under-utilized” federal properties – weren’t consistent with the 2016 federal legislation known as “FASTA,” that created the agency and a means for fast-track disposal of federal real estate.

Historians, archivists, genealogists and tribal officials in Washington (as well as Oregon, Idaho and Alaska) have complained since news of the planned closure broke in January that the PBRB implemented a flawed and secretive process, and didn’t consult with any stakeholders about the impact of the closure of the Seattle facility.

Reached late Tuesday, Attorney General Ferguson confirmed that what people in the four states served by the facility have been saying all along is accurate.

“We’ve had the chance to dig into some documentation, and what everybody feared is true,” Ferguson said by phone. “There was no process. [The PBRB] didn’t reach out to anyone in Washington state.”

Ferguson says this is “bad from a policy standpoint,” because officials should “want to hear from tribes … or individuals who are affected by your decisions.”

But the actions of the Public Buildings Reform Board go beyond mere policy, Ferguson says.

“It’s also problematic from a legal perspective,” Ferguson noted. “The law requires certain processes before the federal government acts [and] that’s a good thing. [Federal agencies] should have to get input. They should have to hear from entities and individuals and tribes that might be affected. They didn’t do that, and we think that is a fatal flaw in their decision from a legal perspective, and that’s why we think if we file a lawsuit, we’ll prevail.”

Attorney General Ferguson has given the White House Office of Management and Budget until close-of-business on Wednesday, March 18 to respond to his request.

Solutions emerging to Seattle National Archives debacle

“To be clear, after that three-week time period, we may well be filing a lawsuit if we don’t get a sufficient response,” Ferguson said. “In other words, my team is drafting a complaint as we speak. They are close to having that complaint finalized, and so I just feel it is important to give the federal government, these agencies, an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, you know what, yes, we want to resolve this outside the courtroom.’”

Ferguson says a lawsuit isn’t the only possible solution, and he invited the OMB and PBRB to meet with him in advance of the March 18 deadline.

“We’re open to a resolution short of a lawsuit, but my team is proceeding with the complaint, putting it together literally as we speak, and it’ll be ready to file after three weeks if we don’t get an appropriate response,” Ferguson said.

And what exactly is the “appropriate response” that Attorney General Bob Ferguson is looking for by March 18?

“The end result has to be that these key records stay here in Washington state,” Ferguson said. “I’m not going to accept any outcome that doesn’t involve that as the ultimate outcome.”

KIRO Radio reached out on Tuesday, once again, for updates on the process from officials at the DC offices of the Office of Management and Budget, Public Buildings Reform Board and National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). OMB and PBRB have continued to ignore requests for comment; a NARA official promise some kind of response before the end of this week.

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