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Allegheny Conference head outlines secrecy behind Amazon HQ2 bid

Bob Bauder
| Thursday, July 5, 2018, 4:42 p.m.
Mayor Bill Peduto speaks during a press conference following Pittsburgh's application to Amazon as a destination for their HQ2, at the City County Building.
Mayor Bill Peduto speaks during a press conference following Pittsburgh's application to Amazon as a destination for their HQ2, at the City County Building.

Pittsburgh's bid for Amazon's second headquarters was a clandestine operation from the beginning, an official who worked closely on the document testified Thursday.

The room where 20 people met, including city and Allegheny County employees, required special key cards to access; everyone was required to sign confidentiality agreements, and documents were stored in a secret, online folder and not permitted to leave the room.

That's what Stefani Pashman, president and CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, testified Thursday during an Allegheny County Court hearing to decide whether the city's bid will be made public.

The Pennsylvania Office of Open Records ruled in January that the city and county must comply with an open records request filed by WTAE-TV reporter Paul Van Osdol under the state's Right-to-Know Law and turn over the bid it submitted to Amazon. The Tribune-Review has filed similar requests.

PGHQ2, a private company formed to develop the bid, appealed that decision to Allegheny County Court. Attorneys representing Pittsburgh and the county called Pashman as a witness Thursday.

“Meetings took place at a secure site on one of the floors at the PNC Building,” Pashman said. “It was primarily informal work sessions, that folks would set up shop on a daily basis to complete the work.”

Senior Judge Terrence W. O'Brien requested legal arguments from attorneys on both side. O'Brien will consider those legal arguments before he issues a ruling.

The judge did not say when the legal briefs were due or when he would make a ruling.

Pittsburgh is one of 20 cities still vying for Amazon's second headquarters.

The project is expected to bring up to 50,000 jobs and $5 billion in investment to the chosen city. Amazon is expected to pick a location before year's end.

The bid includes tax incentives and an offer of public and private land for Amazon to consider.

WTAE-TV and other media outlets have sought release of the 300-page document, arguing the public should have access before Amazon chooses a location because it involves offers of public money and land.

“The whole point of the (Pennsylvania) Right-to-Know Law is the business of the government is the business of the people,” said Ravi V. Sitwala, an attorney representing Hearst, the parent company of WTAE. “The city and county believe that the citizens should not see this proposal until they see fit.”

Lawyers for the city and county have argued that the bid is not subject to the state Right-to-Know Law, because it contains trade secrets and proprietary information.

The Office of Open Records in January disagreed, ruling that the bid is not covered by a trade secrets exemption contained in the law. It ordered Pittsburgh and county officials to publicly disclose the bid and emails between Amazon and local officials within 30 days.

George Janocsko, an assistant county solicitor, argued that the ruling was “riddled with factual errors,” and could jeopardize the region's chances for a “once-in-a-lifetime economic boost.” He asked the judge to sanction the Office of Open Records, calling the ruling biased. O'Brien did not respond to the request.

“(This is) the most important possible private investment in this region since perhaps Andrew Carnegie took over the mills in Braddock and Homestead,” Janocsko said.

Erik Arneson, executive director of the open records office, said the agency stands by its decision.

“We stand behind our final determination in full and look forward to Judge O'Brien's ruling on the issue of whether or not these are public records,” Arneson said.

Pashman said the Allegheny Conference created PGH2Q, a private nonprofit, to gather input from more than 200 organizations across the region and prepare the bid.

She described much of the bid document, which includes tax incentives and offers of public and private property for Amazon's consideration, as proprietary.

PGH2Q submitted the bid and is subject to nondisclosure agreements required by Amazon.

Pashman said the team had similar agreements with organizations and businesses from across the region.

She said disclosure could undermine the Allegheny Conference's relationship with conference members requesting secrecy. Attorneys for the city and county argued that PGH2Q is not subject to the Right-to-Know Law.

Sitwala noted that other cities have publicly disclosed details of their bids.

He said the city and county have the bid, that government staffers worked on it and that the trade secrets exemption should not apply because government does not engage in commerce.

“The idea that this is a trade secret really doesn't make sense,” he said.

Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at bbauder@tribweb.com.

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