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.

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  1. What trade?

    The answer is elementary. Its called the “American System”. See Clay, Henry and his mass murdering prot?g?, the tall ugly one.

    1. ………I just started 7 weeks ago and I’ve gotten 2 check for a total of $2,000…this is the best decision I made in a long time! “Thank you for giving me this extraordinary opportunity to make extra money from home.
      go to this site for more details…..

  2. You have no right to know how we are throwing your money away. Begone!

  3. What can Pittsburgh offer? The Kneelers shit the bed against the Jacksonville Jagoffs, and the P-irates are beginning another multi-decade rebuilding phase. Only the Pens are proven winners, and a 3peat is a lot to put on their shoulders. The streets are laid out as though you can create a coherent grid inside a triangle, and the Commonwealth refuses to free liquor from state store oppression.

    1. Low cost of living might – might! – trump the lack of recent success of some of their major-league sporting franchises.

    2. The Steelers ought to fire their Cheerleader-in-Chief and get a head coach who actually knows what’s he doing. Watching them constantly lose to less talented teams in the playoffs is almost as sad as watching James Harrison come in and make big plays for the Patriots.

      1. Which NFL team has had a record of 11-5, 10-6, 11-5, and 13-3 the last 4 years? Does that sound like the coach of that team doesn’t know what he is doing?

        There’s been one franchise with a better record over those 4 years. Yeah, the Steelers’ nemesis.

        1. Of course they have a great regular season record over the last four years, they’ve been the most talented team in the league over that span! When you have the best running back in the league, the best wide receiver in the league, and one of the best quarterbacks in the league, you SHOULD win a lot of games.

          But the problem of course always shows itself in the playoffs when the glorified male cheerleader routinely gets outcoached and beaten by lesser teams, especially ones who have a smart strategical head coach. They’re completely wasting all this talent by letting them be “led” by an overconfident motivational speaker.

      2. Tomlin needs to be fired. Since the 90s, steelers coaches including Cowher have been outcoached in the playoffs more often than not., But those who bash Tomlin and overpraise Cowhre forget how steelers lost to a mediocre Chargers team and how they nearly lost to a mediocre Colts team the following year.

  4. Time for a 200% Federal excise tax on any and all benefits given to private entities by state and municipal governments. Make the tax rate 10,000% for sports stadiums.

    1. Hell, no! That just legalizes the bribery!
      If any public official offers any thing of value to any entity, it is a bribe; and the offender should go directly to jail, forfeiting any accrued pension. Off with their heads!

      1. Actually that ends the bribery. Making companies pay $2 for every $1 in benefits received pretty much destroys the economic rationale for receiving incentives. A 100.1% excise tax would be sufficient. The 10,000% tax for sports stadiums is just symbolic.

  5. Clever of the city/county to hide the proposal. Pittsburghers who’ve been around since 2000ish are probably still steaming over the sweet deals given to USAir to keep Pittsburgh as a hub. It all came to naught as airline economics easily trumped any commitments made by USAir. That puts us(I’m a Pittsburgher) in ‘fool me twice’ territory with our guard up. At least I hope it does.

  6. I live in Atlanta. I dont understand why Atlanta is acting so desperate to get HQ2. They already have an airline hub. HQ2 offers Atlanta really nothing new but more congestion. A city like Pittsburgh MAY have a better reason to offer incentives if it thinks HQ2 will lead to more flights out of pittsburgh and the airline situation is one that is making it tougher for companies to want to do business in Pittsburgh. Then again, I am not sure if the type of jobs that come to HQ2 will spur anything more than just mere more direct flights to seattle. Pittsburgh is in need of more direct access to other west coast cities and some western european cities by direct flights.

    Even then, I dont know if Pittsburgh should be giving that much in terms of incentives. I am against such incentives in general if there is no proven effect of a company helping a city attract other companies .

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