Investigation Into Amazon Letter Ends, With 'Inconclusive Results'
Investigators hired by the Pittsburgh Public School District say there isn’t enough evidence to determine who signed the name of board representative Kevin Carter on a letter attempting to lure Amazon's HQ2 to Pittsburgh.
According to a Friday-afternoon statement from the District, investigators found a "strong probability the author of the known Kevin Carter signatures did not write the questioned 'Kevin Carter' signature," but ultimately determined there was insufficient evidence to be sure. "The investigation was also unable to ascertain who may have signed Mr. Carter’s signature," the statement said.
Carter has said he did not sign a letter of support for Amazon’s HQ2 that bears his signature. That signature appears alongside that of Superintendent Anthony Hamlet on an Oct. 11, 2017 letter to Amazon expressing “full support for locating [a second headquarters] in Pittsburgh.” That letter was included in the region’s bid for the headquarters.
That pitch included a tax incentive that would have required the school board’s approval. Once that bid became public, Carter said he neither saw nor signed the letter from the School District.
In a November Facebook post, the District 8 representative said any letter or materials included in the Amazon proposal with his signature were “fraudulently forged and affixed [to] said documents without my knowledge,” he wrote in the post. He said at the time that he wanted whoever signed his name to be fired.
The district hired Monaca-based Corporate Security and Investigations soon after. Since then, the district, investigator and Carter have remained silent about the topic.
The report found that "a definitive conclusion could not be reached," because Carter and his attorney did not submit additional handwriting samples or other information requested by a document examiner. Investigators interviewed seven people and reviewed the original letter, as well as 15 documents provided by Carter that included his signature, and recordings of a 2017 school board meeting.
The October 2017 letter was procured by the office of the district’s solicitor, Ira Weiss.
The investigation also turned up a text sent Oct. 10, 2017 -- one day before the letter was dated -- from Weiss sent to Kevin Acklin, then chief of staff to Mayor Bill Peduto. In it, Weiss said Carter was "on board. ... He will sign on PPS letterhead and will confirm when you need it."
Weiss did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday. Neither did Carter. But his attorney, Chuck Pascal, said investigators asked for more signatures close to the time of the letter. He said he couldn't find anything: "Millenials don't write their name ever," he said, half-jokingly.
As for the text exchange between Weiss and Acklin, Pascal said, "He has no idea what they were talking about."
In the district's statement, school board president Lynda Wrenn said, “Although we did not get the definitive answer we had hoped, the situation did result invaluable lessons learned." Going forward, the statement said, the district will only allow the board president to sign such communications. It also plans to require a full board vote before such a letter can be sent.
Weiss told board members in a November email that the letter did not make any commitments to Amazon.
In a statement released Friday afternoon, Weiss said he recommends that letters of support recieve the same level of review by the board as contracts, even though letters of support are not binding.
"That means a vote would be taken and the results recorded in the board's meeting minutes. Furthermore, as per school code, this means only the board president would have the authority to sing letters of support," he said.
Weiss said the board president agreed with that recommendation.
The October 2017 letter said the board committed to the following: “Use existing economic development tools — such as Tax Increment Financing and Transit Revitalization Investment Districts — to divert future taxes associated with the HQ2 site(s) toward site delivery and public infrastructure.” In addition, the letter committed to “Utilize other anticipated tax increment generated by HQ2 to invest in Pittsburgh’s future.”
The letters of support from the city and county contain similar language.
Carter said he took issue with the impression the letter gave Amazon.
“I think it says that we are going to essentially do this,” he said. “I would not have signed the letter. I think some of the language in it is too leading.”
When the letter was made public, current board members said they didn’t know it existed.
The school district denied a Right To Know request from WESA for copies of emails between Pittsburgh Public School district staff and board members regarding the Oct. 11, 2017 letter. Three emails were located, but because they were sent by Solicitor Weiss and are exempt as attorney client privileged.
Carter also said he didn’t understand why his name was on the letter and not then-board president Regina Holley.
“I do not represent the school board and the letter makes it seem like I do,” he said in November.
The board has only submitted one other letter of support to a developer in the last five years, according to a Right To Know request filed by WESA.
In May 2016, then-superintendent Linda Lane wrote a letter to the Sports and Exhibition Authority of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County supporting the development of a hotel with a convention center entrance at the side of the David L Lawrence Convention Center.
Lane’s letter acknowledges that any tax abatements would depend on a formal vote by the Pittsburgh Board of Public Education.
Lane's was the only name and signature listed on the document.