Attorney General’s Office discovers dramatic change in timeline for sale
SEATTLE — Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced today that his office recently uncovered a dramatic change in the timeline for the proposed sale of the National Archives building in Seattle buried in a 74-page meeting minutes document from October. In it, the Public Buildings Reform Board (PBRB) disclosed that it would move to immediately sell the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) building in Seattle, along with a “portfolio” of other federal properties, in early 2021. It had planned on selling the properties individually over the next year.
PBRB officials claimed COVID-19’s effects on the commercial real estate market justified the expedited, bundled sale.
An assistant attorney general recently discovered the plan listed simply as an “update” on the PBRB website. No officials from PBRB, the General Services Administration (GSA), the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) or the U.S. Department of Justice notified the Attorney General’s Office about the October decision.
Ferguson intends to file a lawsuit against the Trump Administration to stop it from proceeding with an expedited sale of the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) building in Seattle.
“The federal government is well aware of the intense public interest in the National Archives building,” Ferguson said. “Despite that, they chose to bury a dramatic change in the timeline for the sale. This is consistent with the utter lack of transparency demonstrated by the federal government since the start of this process. This is not how government should work.”
In light of the expedited sale schedule, Ferguson will also ask the court handling his Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits against these agencies to expedite Washington’s motion for summary judgment, currently set for consideration in April 2021. The federal government has asked the court for permission to delay its response to Washington’s lawsuit until March — by which time it will have sold the building, according to the newly uncovered plans.
To date, the office has received only one heavily redacted document from OMB — which noted “red flag objections” to the sale of some of the facilities, including the Seattle Archives facility, but did not provide the attachment listing these objections — and 440 pages of documents from GSA. Neither NARA nor PBRB have produced any documents.
Ferguson will assert in the lawsuit that federal agencies have violated the Federal Assets Sale and Transfer Act and the Administrative Procedure Act when they added the Seattle National Archives building to other properties for sale. Among other defects, GSA and OMB failed to establish the standards and criteria required by federal law to review PBRB’s recommended property sales. The failure to develop these standards and criteria led to the National Archives building in Seattle being improperly included in the set of what PBRB terms “underutilized” federal properties for sale.
Decision to sell the Seattle National Archives building
Last year, the PBRB identified a dozen federal properties around the U.S. as “High Value Assets” and recommended their sale in a manner that will “obtain the highest and best value for the taxpayer” and accomplish the goal of “facilitating and expediting the sale or disposal of unneeded Federal civilian real properties.” Among those properties — many of which involved abandoned or unused warehouses or buildings — was the National Archives building in Seattle, a building housing critical historical documents of the Pacific Northwest, including extensive tribal records. No local, state or tribal officials were consulted in its initial selection.
In January, OMB approved a recommendation from the PBRB to sell the building on Sand Point Way in Seattle. The board’s recommendation included removing the contents of the Seattle archives and relocating them to facilities in Kansas City, Mo., and Riverside, Calif.
The Seattle archives contain many records essential to memorializing Washington’s history, including tens of thousands of records related to the Chinese Exclusion Act, records of the internment of Japanese Americans, and tribal and treaty records of federally recognized tribes throughout the Northwest. Researchers, historians, genealogists and students routinely use these records.
Washington’s tribal leaders, historians and members have noted the federal government has excluded them from most discussions on selling the building and moving documents — many of which are the only tribal treaties or maps in existence — more than a thousand miles away. Notably, tribal officials were never consulted regarding the proposed sale notwithstanding Executive Order 13175’s requirement for tribal consultation.
The FOIA lawsuits against four federal agencies
Ferguson’s FOIA lawsuits seek public records related to the sale decision requested more than nine months ago under FOIA related to the decision. Since filing the lawsuits, the Attorney General’s Office received only one requested document from OMB related to the sale, which was redacted and did not include what appeared to be key attachments and an initial production from GSA.
Under FOIA, agencies generally have 20 business days to respond after receiving a document request. Ferguson’s office has already won multiple FOIA lawsuits against the federal government on issues unrelated to the National Archives. PBRB responded in July — nearly six months after Ferguson’s original request — demanding that taxpayers pay more than $65,000 to redact the records Ferguson requested. The documents involve property decisions, and are not related to national security or any other sensitive governmental information.
Assistant Attorneys General Nathan Bays and Lauryn Fraas are handling the cases for Washington.
Lawsuits against the Trump Administration
Ferguson has filed 83 lawsuits against the Trump Administration. Forty-four of these cases are awaiting a judicial ruling. Ferguson has 37 legal victories against the Trump Administration. Twenty-two of these cases are finished and cannot be appealed. There have been two adverse decisions on the merits, both currently on appeal.
The Office of the Attorney General is the chief legal office for the state of Washington with attorneys and staff in 27 divisions across the state providing legal services to roughly 200 state agencies, boards and commissions. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.
Brionna Aho, Communications Director, (360) 753-2727; Brionna.firstname.lastname@example.org
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