SEATTLE — Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed federal Freedom of Information Act lawsuits today against three agencies involved in the January decision to close the Federal Archives & Records Center in Seattle, sell the building and move the records stored there to facilities more than 1,000 miles away.
Ferguson is also sending a letter to a fourth agency who is demanding tens of thousands of dollars to produce the requested records, informing them that if they continue to fail to produce the documents he is prepared to file a lawsuit against them, as well.
The lawsuits seek public records that Ferguson requested more than six months ago under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) related to the decision. Not one of the agencies has provided a single document to the Attorney General’s Office — an egregious violation of the key federal open government law.
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.
Two of the agencies — National Archives & Records Administration (NARA), the Office of Management & Budget (OMB) — failed to respond at all to Ferguson’s requests.
A third agency, the General Services Administration (GSA), informed the Attorney General’s Office in April that it had identified the responsive records and would begin producing them after review by the agency’s attorneys, but has unlawfully refused to follow through on its agreement.
The fourth agency, the Public Buildings Reform Board (PBRB), responded in July — nearly six months after Ferguson’s request — demanding that taxpayers pay more than $65,000 to properly redact the records Ferguson requested. The documents involve property decisions, and are not related to national security or any other sensitive governmental information.
Ferguson’s letter informs the PBRB that he is prepared to file a lawsuit if they do not produce the records he requested.
“The decision to close the National Archives in Seattle has far-reaching impacts across the Northwest,” Ferguson said. “The first-hand, historical records contained there is essential to the cultural fabric of our communities. The federal government did not seek any local input on its decision to move these important records more than 1,000 miles away, and now illegally refuse to provide documents about how the decision was made. The people have a right to know.”
In January, the OMB approved a recommendation from the PBRB to sell the Federal Archives & Records Center on Sand Point Way in Seattle. The board’s recommendation included removing the contents of the Seattle archives and relocating them to National Archives facilities in Kansas City, Mo., and Riverside, Calif.
The Seattle archives contain many records essential to Washington’s historical record, including tens of thousands of files on the Chinese Exclusion Act, records on 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.
On Feb. 3, the Attorney General’s Office requested all records related to the decision on the Seattle archives facility from the four agencies: NARA, OMB, GSA and PBRB. None of the agencies have produced any records to the Attorney General’s Office.
The OMB and NARA have not responded to the document requests. The GSA responded in April that it was preparing records and awaiting legal review of the documents, but has not produced any documents, nor has the agency communicated with the Attorney General’s Office since confirming in May that the documents would be provided shortly.
In its response on July 20, the PBRB informed the Attorney General’s Office that it had identified an “extensive” amount of documents related to Ferguson’s request. The PBRB is now demanding that taxpayers pay $65,400 for the agency to hire a contractor to prepare the requested records with proper redactions, unless the state narrows its request.
Ferguson’s request involved records and communications related to the Seattle archives facility and the decision to recommend the sale of that property. It is unlikely that documents of this kind would require extensive redactions like more sensitive government information.
The PBRB also ignored Ferguson’s request for a waiver of all fees related to producing the documents. Under federal law, Ferguson can request a waiver since he is a public officer of the State of Washington, the documents are in the public interest because they shed light on an agency’s decision, and the Attorney General’s Office has no commercial interest related to the documents. Assistant Attorneys General Nathan Bays and Lauryn Fraas are handling the cases for Washington.
Federal Archives & Records Center in Seattle
On Feb. 25, Ferguson sent a letter urging the federal government to reconsider the decision to move the archives. In his letter, Ferguson detailed the regional historical significance of the records housed at the Seattle archives and the property where the archives are located. The property was once a farm operated by Japanese immigrants. The family was interned in 1942 and never able to return to their Seattle home.
As documented by a now-retired senior archivist, the Seattle archives facility sits on land that was once a thriving farm operated by the Uyeji family, who emigrated from Japan decades before World War II began.
In May 1942, when the federal government forced evacuation of residents with Japanese ancestry, the Uyeji family was removed from their farm and relocated to internment camps in California. While the family was interned, their farm was sold and condemned by the U.S. Navy in order to build a warehouse, which has been used by the National Archives since 1963. The family never returned to their Seattle home.
This warehouse houses records about the Uyeji family farm — including a key to the front door of the family’s former home — as well as records related to the internment of Japanese-Americans in the 1940s.
The warehouse itself is a piece of Japanese-American history in the Pacific Northwest. In his letter, Ferguson argued that closing the warehouse and transferring the records to Missouri and California contradicts the archives’ purpose to preserve history and impedes local families’ research on their ancestors.
“Residents of my state use the Seattle facility for a broad range of personal research,” Ferguson wrote in his letter. “My late father, Murray Ferguson, spent many, many hours at the Seattle facility. I have heard from numerous Washingtonians who are outraged by your decision and the ‘process’ which led to this outcome.”
The Seattle archives houses a significant collection of tribal and treaty records relating to the 272 federally recognized tribes in Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Idaho. The archives contain original drafts of tribal treaties and original copies of correspondence from treaty negotiations during the mid-19th century.
Tribal members use federal archive records for many reasons, including to establish tribal membership, demonstrate and enforce tribal rights to fishing and other activities, trace their lineage and ancestry, and access native school records. If these historical records are removed from the Pacific Northwest, many tribal members will be prevented from exercising these important rights.
Under an executive order, the federal government is required to establish meaningful consultation with tribes regarding federal policies that have an impact on tribes. The federal government did not consult with Northwest tribal leaders before deciding to move these significant pieces of tribal history thousands of miles away from the Northwest, depriving local tribes of access to these critical historical documents.
Chinese Exclusion Act
The National Archives in Seattle contains 50,000 case files related to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was passed to limit the number of Chinese laborers entering the United States. Individuals applying for entry into the United States under the Chinese Exclusion Act had to go through an extensive application process.
The Seattle archive facility houses original case files for people who entered the country through ports in Portland and Seattle. These case files include identification photographs, biographical information, interrogation notes, copies of federal and local court records, as well as personal letters and photographs. These files, created to discriminate against Chinese workers, have become a critical resource to Chinese Americans looking for information about their ancestors.
One person who used these records to map his family tree with the help of archives volunteers said, “it’s all there on paper, so you can literally recreate a picture of the village and family tree through these documents.”
A dedicated group of volunteers has been working to index these files, creating an extensive database of family history. If the federal government moves these files, the volunteers will not be able to complete their work or help people learn about their family history. The Seattle Times profiled these volunteers in a video called, “It’s like reading someone’s life: Seattle’s Chinese Exclusion Act Files.”