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State Agency Heads To Court To Keep Amazon Bid Secret

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
Protestors gathered outside Pittsburgh’s City-County Building in June to demand the city release its Amazon proposal. Crystal Jennings addressed the crowd. ";

The state Department of Community and Economic Development has rejected an Office of Open Records decision that it must release its proposal to attract Amazon’s second headquarters, or HQ2, to Pennsylvania. 

90.5 WESA will now turn to Commonwealth Court to pursue details of the incentive structure offered by the state, as well as the proposals submitted by Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

Announced in September of 2018, Amazon stated its new home could expect 50,000 new jobs and more than $5 billion in investment over 10 years.

The investment potential led to fierce competition between cities and, in nearly all instances, a refusal to reveal what governments and private economic development entities offered to the company.

Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records enforces the state’s Right to Know Law and has received numerous cases since Amazon announced its HQ2 initiative, said Erik Arneson, OOR’s executive director.

“Transparency breeds confidence in government. The more a government agency can be transparent in its operations, the more confidence the public can have in that agency,” he said. “We’re at a time in American history where confidence in government agencies is on a downturn.”

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
An Amazon one-day shipping pick up on Oakland Ave. in Pittsburgh's Oakland neighborhood.

In an affidavit, a DCED official wrote the agency developed “the framework for a new economic development program specifically designed...for the HQ2 project” and offered the same deal to all Pennsylvania municipalities that submitted proposals: Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and the Lehigh Valley. Amazon selected both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia as finalist locations in January 2018.

In its April rejection of 90.5 WESA’s Right to Know request, DCED argued its offer to Amazon constituted a trade secret and contained confidential proprietary information. In addition, the agency said revealing its proposal would put the state at a competitive disadvantage in the continental bid for HQ2. In particular, DCED said the proposals submitted “are only the opening offers,” and any disclosure would harm ongoing negotiations with Amazon as well as future negotiations with other companies interested in locating in Pennsylvania.

After nearly six months of exchange and deliberation, OOR determined DCED failed to support its claims and must release the records.

“These were big cases,” said Arneson, referring to Right to Know requests filed by news outlets including WESA, WTAE-TV, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Public Source and The Morning Call. “Certainly important cases, and more time-consuming than average.”

According to news reports, many private citizens have also filed requests for this information.

Before these HQ2 cases, it wasn’t yet fully decided in Pennsylvania case law whether or not a proposal from a government agency going to a private business qualified as a trade secret, said Arenson. Ultimately, OOR determined agencies do not qualify for the exemption, and must release the records.

The City of Pittsburgh, the City of Philadelphia, and the Department of Community and Economic Development have all appealed to Commonwealth Court.

A spokesperson for the Allegheny Conference, which coordinated the Pittsburgh region’s HQ2 efforts, wrote in an email to WESA that the organization will not comment on the proposal or its progress, noting that it’s common practice in economic development.

A spokesperson for Allegheny County also declined to comment.

The City of Pittsburgh did not return a request for comment.

The Department of Community and Economic Development did not return a request for comment.