Yousoufian’s case heads to high court

Trial court awards Islander highest public disclosure penalty ever.

An eight-year battle between Armen Yousoufian and King County over the state’s Public Disclosure Act and the penalty he’s owed for the county’s failure to deliver up hundreds of pages of documents is headed to the state Supreme Court — for a second time.

The county appealed the case to the state’s highest court after a trial court said the county owed Yousoufian $123,780 for its failure to comply with the Public Disclosure Act, the largest penalty in the history of the state disclosure law. According to the county’s legal brief, the court-mandated penalty is out of line since Yousoufian has not experienced any economic harm due to the county’s delay in releasing documents and since the county did not intentionally withhold the information.

But Yousoufian’s lawyer, Rand Jack, in his legal brief, said economic harm should not be and never has been a factor in setting penalties under the disclosure act. The record-setting penalty is also in order, Jack argued, because of what he called the county’s “reckless disregard” for the law and its “intentional acts or omissions.”

The Supreme Court will hear the case at 9 a.m. next Tuesday, Feb. 26, at Seattle University’s law school.

The case has had many twists and turns since Yousoufian, a Seattle businessman who lives on Vashon, first asked the county in May 1997 for records about the public financing of what is now Qwest Field — 18 days before a referendum vote on the then-controversial stadium.

According to Yousoufian’s brief, the Seattle businessman did not receive the final documents he requested until after he filed a lawsuit against the county in March 2000, nearly four years after his initial request. The county said it produced many documents right away but failed to provide documents outlining studies on the financing of stadiums because officials believed at the time that no such documents existed; after Yousoufian filed suit, the county discovered that such documents did exist and released them.

In the case’s first trial, King County Superior Court found the county negligent “every step of the way” and imposed a fine of $5 a day, for a total of $25,450. Yousoufian, arguing that the fine was too low, appealed to the state Court of Appeals, which agreed with him and ordered the trial court to impose a bigger penalty. Yousoufian also appealed the case to the state Supreme Court in an effort to further clarify how that larger penalty should be set.

When the case went back to the trial court, it set the penalty at $15 a day and the total fine at $123,789; the trial court also said the county had to pay Yousoufian’s lawyers nearly $300,000. All told, the county has to pay $423,000 for its delay in producing all the documents Yousoufian sought.

Yousoufian did not want the case to go to the high court again but said in a brief interview that he expects to again prevail.

“We look forward to the opportunity to revisit the issues,” he said.

Carolyn Duncan, a spokesperson for County Executive Ron Sims, said the county’s pleased that the high court will review the case, saying that the penalty seems disproportionate to the county’s missteps with Yousoufian.

“We did our best to meet the request and inadvertently left out information that was covered by the request,” she said. “As soon as we realized that, we got the other documents to him.”

The case will be heard at Seattle University as part of the state Supreme Court’s effort to get out of Olympia and “on the road,” as the court’s Web site puts it. According to Yousoufian, the first time his case was heard by the high court, it also went on the road, that time to the University of Washington.

“It’s my understanding that the cases selected to be heard on these ‘on the road’ occasions … are those of the most compelling public interest,” Yousoufian said in a posting on his blog. “So for my case to now be chosen two out of two times to be put in this category is another honor.”