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After numerous ‘red flags,’ AG Ferguson sues federal agencies over Seattle National Archives facility

The National Archives in Seattle. (NationalArchives.gov)

When the federal government decided, without any public process, to close and sell the Seattle facility of the National Archives and Records Administration earlier this year, a lot of people were taken by surprise.

One of those blindsided by the decision was Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson. He told KIRO Radio at the time that he would weigh legal action to keep the warehouse full of historic photos, documents and maps related to federal government activities in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska right where it is.

On Monday, Ferguson’s office filed a lawsuit against three of the four federal agencies involved in the secret decision to close and sell the federal facility, which has been a fixture in Seattle’s Sand Point neighborhood since the early 1960s.

The first step, Ferguson had said on Jan. 28, was to review how the decision to sell was actually made.

It’s now been nearly six months since Ferguson’s office sent official requests for documents related to the decision to the four separate federal agencies directly involved: The National Archives and Records Administration; White House Office of Management & Budget; General Services Administration; and Public Buildings Reform Board.

And how many pages of documents shedding light on that fateful decision does the Attorney General’s Office now have in hand? Zero, to be exact, from a total of four separate agencies.

“Frankly, that raises my eyebrows, in the sense of are they trying to hide something? Was this a political decision they don’t want us to see?” Ferguson said. “The fact that not one of these four agencies has produced even a single document – I don’t want to get into sort of conspiracies, but are they coordinating this? What’s going on? Why are we not getting a single document from any of these entities?”

“That, to me, is extremely unusual,” Attorney General Ferguson said.

And that’s why Ferguson filed three lawsuits Monday in federal court, targeting the three agencies who have failed to respond to requests. The fourth agency, the obscure Public Buildings Reform Board, did respond, but told Ferguson’s office that the State of Washington would have to pay $65,000 to cover the costs of redacting the requested documents.

“I can’t emphasize enough, underscore enough, put an exclamation point at the end enough, to say how unusual that is and how unacceptable that is,” Ferguson said, pointing to the $65,000 price tag for the documents his office is seeking. “That’s just wildly inappropriate.”

“If these were national security documents, that’s one thing,” Ferguson said. “[But] we’re talking about the sale of a property in Seattle, Washington, and for the taxpayers to spend tens of thousands of dollars for the federal government to redact them is crazy.”

For the record, the Office of Management & Budget and the National Archives and Records Administration have not responded, period, to the Attorney General’s requests. The General Services Administration, who oversees the real estate and would be responsible for selling the facility, initially responded, and told Ferguson’s office they had documents that they would begin to share, but then went silent months ago.

“Those kinds of things are red flags to me,” Ferguson said. “Is it bureaucratic incompetence? It’s possible. Is it that they’re making it as difficult as possible for us to get to documents that we think might be helpful for a potential case or might be embarrassing to the federal government? Yes, I think that’s entirely possible.”

Could the pandemic be a factor in any of the delays? Ferguson doesn’t think so; plenty of intergovernmental communication and business has gone on related to other issues despite the various shutdowns and other realities of COVID-19.

Seattle City Councilmember Alex Pedersen, whose district includes the National Archives complex, shared a statement by email late Monday.

“I strongly support our Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s actions to compel Trump’s agencies to produce the documents underlying their problematic decision to sell the federal archives building on Sand Point Way in Northeast Seattle,” Councilmember Pedersen wrote.

Secretary of State Kim Wyman, whose office manages the state archives, learned about the three lawsuits on Monday. She’s been working for the past several months to find an alternate means of keeping the federal materials in Washington. One of those options would be co-locating federal records currently in Seattle at a new state archives building that’s currently in the works for Tumwater. How that federal portion would be paid for, and if it’s even legally or procedurally possible for federal archives to be stored somewhere other than a federal facility, remains to be seen.

Next week — on Tuesday, August 25 — Secretary Wyman will host an invitation-only online meeting to hear from elected officials, tribal representatives, genealogists, and others who depend on the Seattle National Archives facility.

“We’re going to be convening a group of federal and state stakeholders, and I think we’re up to about 60 or 70 people right now that are going to be at this meeting,” Secretary Wyman said late Monday.

“Mainly it’s going to be talking to Senator Patty Murray’s office and Representative [Pramila] Jayapal’s office,” Wyman said, “and really just talk about the federal perspective and where they’re at, and what they’re trying to do in terms of getting funding or authority to be able to relocate those records to another facility.”

Secretary Wyman says a representative from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) had been invited to participate in the online meeting next week, but Monday’s lawsuit may now limit the ability of anyone from NARA to participate.

“Today might have changed that,” Wyman said. “The NARA representative may not be able to have any of these discussions now” because of the pending lawsuit filed against that agency.

Meanwhile, Ferguson says he’s confident a judge will find in favor of the State of Washington in all three lawsuits and that the agencies will be forced to produce the documents. But the timeline remains to be determined.

“We feel our case is, frankly, overwhelming and we’ll be moving quickly to get in front of the judge and seeking relief from the court,” Ferguson said. “I don’t want to make any promises only because I can’t. It’s really up to the federal judge.”

As of late Monday, a date has not yet been set for a hearing.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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