Island Landmarks board member files lawsuit, says he’s been defamed

Saying he’s been defamed by a “dissident group” of islanders, the husband of the founder of Island Landmarks is suing three Vashon women who have spearheaded an effort to wrest control of Mukai Farmhouse from the tightly held nonprofit.

Editor’s note: This story has been changed from the original article that ran in The Beachcomber to reflect two corrections.

Saying he’s been defamed by a “dissident group” of islanders, the husband of the founder of Island Landmarks is suing three Vashon women who have spearheaded an effort to wrest control of Mukai Farmhouse from the tightly held nonprofit.

J. Nelson Happy, a lawyer and Mary Matthews’ husband, filed the lawsuit on Jan. 17 against Ellen Kritzman, Lynn Greiner and Glenda Pearson, their partners or spouses and eight other people and their partners yet to be named.

Happy, a member of the Island Landmarks board, is seeking punitive damages and lawyers’ fees for the case — judgments, should he prevail, that would come from the women’s personal assets.

Happy declined to comment on his suit. But Robert Krinsky, his lawyer, said Happy decided to sue because he’s “a man with a national reputation in his area of practice,” a reputation, he added, that’s been harmed by the high-profile effort by several islanders to take over Island Landmarks.

“You just can’t carelessly accuse people of illegal acts and unlawful conduct without thinking about who they are,” Krinsky said.

The islanders who have been named in the suit said they’re troubled by Happy’s effort. “It’s unfortunate that he’s chosen this low road,” said Pearson, president of the newly formed Friends of Mukai.

But they also said they feel confident that they’ll prevail in court. Greiner, also a lawyer, called the litigation a classic example of a SLAPP suit, a “strategic lawsuit against public participation” — litigation meant to intimidate people involved in a public process and considered illegal in Washington state.

“We’re not going to go away,” Greiner said. “I’ve got more support than ever. We’re working with partners from the state, from the county, from historic preservation entities. There’s a huge group now that is concerned about this property. It’s not just a small group on Vashon. It’s big.”

Kritzman and Pearson said they, too, are not intimidated.

“I think it makes us feel ever more committed to doing this,” Kritzman said.

The lawsuit is the latest chapter in a long and simmering saga about the fate of the famed farmhouse and Japanese garden tucked at the end of 107th Avenue S.W. off of Bank Road. The farmhouse was built by B.D. Mukai, a Japanese-American strawberry farmer who left Vashon during World War II (he and his family were not interned but moved to Idaho in advance of the 1942 internment order that forced 110,000 U.S. residents into “war relocation camps,” as they were called at the time). The garden, considered a traditional Japanese garden with some American influences, was designed by his wife at the time, Kuni.

Matthews, then an islander but now a Texas resident, founded Island Landmarks and purchased the farmhouse for $300,000 in county, state and federal grants in 2000, promising at the time to make it into a cultural and educational resource center. By most accounts, that hasn’t happened; these days, the house is rarely opened to the public, and until recently, it appeared to be receiving little attention from Island Landmarks, an organization with an out-of-state board.

Greiner, Pearson, Kritzman and other islanders, saying they wanted to see the famed house and garden restored and opened to the public, tried to take over Island Landmarks at a meeting last year, an effort that failed after a King County Superior Court judge ruled they hadn’t adhered to the nonprofit’s bylaws. They’ve appealed the trial judge’s ruling and have now formed a new group, Friends of Mukai, to continue to press for the house and garden’s restoration and to educate islanders about the Japanese-American experience on Vashon during World War II.

In the 11-page complaint, Happy takes issue with the group’s effort to advance their cause, saying that in doing so the islanders wrongly accused him of illegal actions and engaged in a “civil conspiracy” to take over the nonprofit.

The suit cites statements by Greiner and other members of the group — for instance, a hand-out called “Top 10 reasons why Island Landmarks needs a new board of directors,” which says that the current board failed to fulfill obligations imposed by funders and that some of the grant money the nonprofit received “simply disappeared.”

Happy contends a bumper sticker the group produced that says “Free Mukai” suggests Island Landmarks is “acting in a way that was similar to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II,” according to the complaint. He also takes issue with a website the group created, an article Greiner wrote for The Loop and the group’s booth at Strawberry Festival, saying that in all of those situations the defendants “disseminated false information” about Happy and made him “feel vilified and cast out of the Vashon Island community.”

Happy, 69, who is licensed to practice law in several states, has had a long career as a lawyer, most recently working in private practice in New York City. He also served as general counsel for an aggregate company in Dallas and for Mooney Aerospace Group in Kerrville, Tex., and was the dean of Regent University Law School, part of Regent University, founded by televangelist Pat Robertson.

Happy, who was on Vashon last week, in part to do an interview with a Seattle television news station, declined to discuss the lawsuit. But he took issue with what he called “the dissident group,” saying, “We’ve had nothing but an unpleasant relationship with them. They’ve shown no real interest in working with us or cooperating with us.”

At the same time, he added, he and Matthews would willingly meet with the Vashon group if it would join them in their effort to get the National Park Service to take on ownership of the property. “I think it’s important for us to move the project forward,” he said.

The islanders who formed Friends of Mukai said they have tried several times to meet with Matthews and Happy and to broker an agreement. According to Greiner, the group has written to Matthews and Happy, suggesting a meeting, and was directed to the couple’s lawyer, Krinsky.

“There have been a number of efforts to resolve it favorably,” she said.

Others, before this new group formed, have also tried, she said. “We’ve been dealing with them for years. Whenever an idea is put forward, they come up with some reason it won’t work. It’s been a pattern,” she said.

Friends of Mukai, meanwhile, will continue to push for the property’s restoration and to realize the vision Matthews first articulated when she secured public funds to purchase the property, according to Pearson, president of the organization.

The group, which now has 142 members and is in the process of becoming a tax-exempt organization, held a meeting last week. Clarence Moriwaki, a Bainbridge Island man and a leader in the Japanese-American community, discussed his efforts to create a memorial in honor of the Japanese-Americans who were sent to what he called “concentration camps” in 1942 — a history that’s particularly rich on Bainbridge because of the community’s effort to stand with their Japanese-American neighbors.

Pearson said she was inspired by Moriwaki’s success and the obstacles he had to overcome to build the memorial, a “story wall” that traces the path Japanese-Americans took as they were forced off of the island and onto a boat, the first step in their journey to a locked, barbed-wire camp in Idaho.

“The facts are different,” she said of Moriwaki’s efforts, noting that the Bainbridge memorial was built on an EPA Superfund site. “But the resistance, the difficulties they had to overcome and the fact that they did it … was very inspiring. I think people left feeling, ‘Yes. If they can do it, we can.’”