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Washington Supreme Court awards $371,340 for King County's delay to release public records
The state Supreme Court, in a case that has had more twists and turns than an Olympics-style bobsled run, has issued what appears to be the final word on Armen Yousoufian’s 13-year crusade over King County’s failure to uphold the state’s public disclosure law.
Overturning its previous ruling, the high court on Thursday ordered the county to pay the Vashon businessman $371,340 for its lengthy delay in turning over hundreds of pages of documents Yousoufian requested in 1997.
The ruling will stand as the largest fine ever imposed under the landmark public disclosure law. But it’s a far cry from the state Supreme Court’s initial ruling last year, when it remanded the case to the trial court, suggesting it impose a per-day fine that could have brought the penalty to more than $800,000.
The Supreme Court re-heard the case after the county successfully argued that its prior ruling, written by Justice Richard Sanders, should be tossed out. Sanders, the county argued, had a conflict of interest because he had his own public records lawsuit pending against the state.
Yousoufian, reached Friday, said he was disappointed by the court’s latest decision. The case swallowed up 5,000 to 6,000 hours of his time, he said.
“I really question whether I should have bothered. I’d just like to have my life back at this point,” he said.
The latest decision, a 5-4 ruling written by Justice Gerry Alexander, upheld much of the reasoning that Sanders put forward when he crafted his majority decision last year.
But this time around, with Judge Dean Morgan sitting in for Sanders, the court set the fine at $45 per day for 8,252 days, or $371,340 in all. Last year, it ruled that the fine should be at the top of the range, or close to $100 a day.
Yousoufian questioned whether the new fine would have the deterrent effect he believes is needed to ensure government officials follow both the letter and the spirit of the public disclosure act.
“It sounds like a lot of money. But it’s a very small cost of doing business,” he said.
Yousoufian, whose tenacity over public disclosure requests has made him a cause célèbre in open-government circles, challenged the county after it denied his request for copies of economic studies allegedly supporting the county’s decision to help finance the Seahawks football stadium.
Yousoufian said that support amounted to a kind of “interest free loan of $300 or $400 million” to Paul Allen, owner of the Seahwaks. Yousoufian wanted to get a hold of the studies before the issue of stadium financing went before statewide voters for a special referendum financed by Allen.
This was the case’s third trip to the state Supreme Court. The latest ruling overturns a King County Superior Court decision that put the county’s fine at $124,000.