Pittsburgh Tried to Hide Its Amazon Proposal by Claiming It Was a 'Trade Secret'

What trade would that be, exactly?


Bill Bachmann/Photoshot/Newscom

Officials in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, want Amazon to set up its second headquarters in their city, so they've crafted a proposal to lure the company to town. What's in the proposal? We don't know: When a reporter requested the information, the city refused to release it on the grounds that it's a "trade secret."

When the same reporter put his request to Allegheny County, which surrounds and encompasses Pittsburgh, he was told the same thing.

Trade secrets are indeed exempted from Pennsylvania's open records law. But that's meant to protect proprietary information owned by companies who do business with the state. It's not meant to allow public officials to keep secrets from the public.

Fortunately, Pittsburgh's claim was laughed out of the state's Office of Open Records yesterday. The city now has 30 days to turn over a copy of the proposal to Paul Van Osdol, a journalist at the Pittsburgh-based WTAE-TV.

There's a certain humor to the Office of Open Records' final decision in the case—humor of the laugh-so-you-don't-cry variety.

"The proposal is not related to any business or commerce being conducted by the city or the county; instead, through the proposal, the county is hoping to attract Amazon to the region so that it may engage in commerce," writes Kyle Applegate, the state's open records appeals officer. "Therefore, the proposal cannot constitute or contain trade secrets."

If the city has a shot at landing the headquarters, there's a good chance it's offering a lot. Atlanta has promised Amazon $1 billion in the form of grants, tax breaks, and transportation improvements. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is trying to lure Amazon to Montgomery County with a $5 billion incentive package. Newark, New Jersey, has offered $7 billion—considerably more than the $5 billion Amazon has promised to invest in its new headquarters—in state and local tax breaks. Many other cities on Amazon's shortlist have refused, at least so far, to disclose their proposals.

In Pittsburgh's case, the city and county may very well have known that trying to keep the proposal secret was going to fail. The important thing is how long it took to fail.

Osdol submitted the initial requests for the proposal way back on October 19, shortly after Amazon published a list of locales that submitted bids for the headquarters. Under state law, public entities have five business days to respond to a request, but they can give themselves a 30-day extension for a variety of reasons. In this case, Pittsburgh and Allegheny County waited until November 27 to respond. By the time an appeal to the denial was filed, it was already December 1. The city and county dragged out that appeal for another month.

By the time the 30-day deadline to turn over the proposal to Osdol is over, it's possible Amazon will have made its decision. In the meantime, the public will have been kept in the dark about what Pittsburgh was willing to offer Amazon during a crucial four-month period when public opposition might have sunk the deal.

It may not be a trade secret under Pennsylvania state law, but crony capitalism is certainly a trade full of secrets.