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AG Ferguson sues Trump Administration to halt sale of National Archives in Seattle

Rhonda Farrar demonstrated against the closure and sale of the Seattle facility of the National Archives. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Radio)

UPDATE 1/8: On Thursday, Attorney General Bob Ferguson took additional legal action to prevent the sale of the facility housing the Seattle branch of the National Archives.

This latest step seeks a court order from Judge John Coughenour in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington to put a stop to the efforts of the Public Buildings Reform Board (PBRB), an obscure federal agency that led the secretive process in 2019 to target the Seattle facility for closure, and that took steps late last year to expedite the sale.

Documents filed by Ferguson’s office Thursday include a motion for preliminary injunction, and nearly 600 pages of declarations from historians, tribes and heritage organizations describing the role of the Seattle facility and its value to the region. A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office said the motion will likely come before the court sometime in late January, and the AG will likely present oral arguments as part of the process.

On Tuesday, January 19, the Attorney General will convene a public meeting (via Zoom) to gather stakeholder input – which the PBRB neglected to do prior to choosing to dispose of the Seattle property.

UPDATE, 1/6: On Tuesday, Jan. 5, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik found in favor of Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s “Freedom of Information Act” (or “FOIA”) lawsuit seeking documents from the obscure federal agency known as the Public Buildings Reform Board (PBRB) that originally targeted the Seattle branch of the National Archives for closure and sale. The PBRB must now produce all documents related to their process (and the decision to close and sell the Seattle facility) in the next few weeks.

In a statement to KIRO Radio late Tuesday, Ferguson wrote, “The federal government violated the law by withholding these records. A federal judge ruled that the government doesn’t get to hide the ball from the public on how it made its decision to sell our Archives building.”


ORIGINAL STORY, PUBLISHED 1/4: 

An obscure part of the Trump Administration – the Public Buildings Reform Board – has been planning for more than a year to sell a warehouse and 10-acre parcel of land near Magnuson Park in Seattle and move its contents to California and Missouri.

Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson – and 40 tribes and other heritage groups in the Pacific Northwest – don’t think that’s a very good idea.

On Monday, Ferguson announced that his office is filing suit against the federal government to stop the sale of the property, which has been home to the Seattle branch of the National Archives and Record Administration – and priceless documents, photos, and maps related to Northwest history – for nearly 60 years.

“These federal agencies just don’t care,” Ferguson said, not mincing any words in criticizing the process that led to the archives facility being targeted for sale with no public or stakeholder input, and the steps taken by the PBRB since their plans were publicized by KIRO Radio nearly a year ago.

Ferguson says that after years working in government, he knows when a government agency is truly interested in solving a problem.

“I also know when someone just frankly doesn’t [care], and they’re just going to do it their way and they don’t care who they’ve got to run over or what laws they need to break or what they need to do to get what they want,” Ferguson said. “And this is most certainly the latter with this federal agency.”

“They had plenty of opportunities to work with us and the 40 different plaintiffs who are part of this lawsuit to reach an outcome that works for everybody, but they’re plainly just not interested,” Ferguson said.

The Attorney General’s Office recruited a long list of plaintiffs to join the legal action, including the State of Oregon, and more than three-dozen tribes and heritage organizations.

At a press conference Monday morning announcing the lawsuit, Attorney General Ferguson was joined by Chairman Jeromy Sullivan of Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe; President Fawn Sharp of the Quinault Indian Nation; Chairman Robert de los Angeles of the Snoqualmie Indian Tribe; and President Connie So of the OCA Asian Pacific Advocates, Greater Seattle Chapter.

The groups represented in the suit comprise what Ferguson described as the “broadest coalition” his office has ever assembled for a legal action against the federal government.

Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe Chairman Jeromy Sullivan expressed disappointment that the tribes only learned about the proposed sale – as well as a subsequent meeting for tribal representatives held in February 2020 in Seattle – from the media, because the federal government is required by law to consult with tribes on matters that affect them.

“Getting notified that something like this is happening without having a conversation about it at all, getting notified of a meeting from a news outlet rather than the federal government was pretty frustrating,” Sullivan said. “And the lack of tribal leadership there [at the meeting] because there was no notification of these meetings, … all of these things were pretty frustrating for our team and for our tribe.”

Chairman Sullivan described how the federal records housed in Seattle play a critical role in understanding his tribe’s history, and also in managing the tribe’s contemporary relationship with the federal government.

Citing a recent project to understand the role of Indian Island and Port Townsend in the tribe’s history, Sullivan said that spending time at the Seattle branch of the National Archives “was really important research, and it verified all the things that we had talked about in oral history over the years.”

“We learned how we were pushed off of Indian Island for the Navy … [and how] we were also pushed out of Port Townsend because a mill was going in there,” Sullivan said. “While we knew that [these incidents] had happened, they were verified by the archives.”

OCA Asian Pacific Advocates Greater Seattle Chapter President Connie So said the documents preserved in Seattle related to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act are “critical” to understanding Chinese and Chinese American people who left little other records in the United States before 1950.

“These documents include precious information about families, marriages, lifestyles, occupations, businesses, land ownership, religion, food, medicine, travels to and from China, networking organizations, and other information that would be otherwise lost,” So said.

The National Archives facility is fundamental to our Asian Pacific American communities,” So said. “Cutting access to these important historical records would be devastating.”

Also taking part in the press conference were members of Ferguson’s staff, including Lauryn Fraas, one of the attorneys leading the National Archives effort. Both Ferguson and Fraas spoke of delays in receiving what should have been routine documents from PBRB, the Office of Management and Budget, General Services Administration, and the National Archives and Records Administration.

Fraas said many of the documents so far received are heavily redacted, including an email from OMB staff dated Oct. 16, 2019 – nearly three months before the decision was made to sell the Seattle facility – that mentions “Red Flag Objections” to the potential sale. An attachment mentioned in the email was not provided to the Attorney General’s Office. Ferguson said that attorneys for the federal government had sought to delay providing additional documents until after the Seattle facility would be on the market and potentially already sold.

Ferguson’s suit announced Monday will seek “injunctive relief” to shut down the proposed sale of the facility, and, as such, he expects the matter to be before a judge sometime in the next several days. Ferguson told KIRO Radio in early December that the lawsuit was prompted by steps taken by the PBRB in October – which the PBRB did not publicize – to expedite the sale of the Seattle facility and nearly a dozen other federal properties. No objections have been raised to the sale of those other properties, which include a General Services Administration warehouse in Auburn.

“We’ve had to file [earlier] lawsuits, for crying out loud, just to get public records that we should be entitled to,” Ferguson said. “It’s exactly the kind of thing that drives people crazy about government. Government doesn’t listen, doesn’t seem to care, doesn’t want to find a solution.”

“And so it’s unfortunate we have to come to a lawsuit and put the resources into that,” Ferguson said. “But that’s where we’re at.”

KIRO Radio reached out to Secretary of State Kim Wyman’s office for her reaction to Ferguson’s suit, but has not yet heard back. Secretary Wyman has been actively seeking long-term solutions that would keep the federal archives – the materials, if not necessarily the facility – in the Evergreen State.

For members of the general public who want to weigh in on the proposed closure and sale of the Seattle facility of the National Archives, Ferguson’s office has scheduled a public meeting via Zoom on Tuesday, Jan. 19.

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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