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Open records office tells Pittsburgh to turn over Amazon HQ2 correspondence

Aaron Aupperlee
| Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018, 2:39 p.m.

Pittsburgh officials must turn over copies of letters, emails, notes or any other communications sent to Amazon as the city prepared its bid to attract the company's second headquarters, Pennsylvania's Office of Open Records ruled Thursday.

The city has 30 days to comply with the ruling or appeal it to the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas.

City spokespeople did not immediately respond when asked if officials planned to make the documents public or appeal the ruling.

The city had argued that the emails and letters were exempt from the state's Right-to-Know Law because they contained confidential, proprietary information and trade secrets and were records of internal, predecisional deliberations. The Office of Open Records rejected these claims, stating the city cannot have a trade secret with a company when it is not engaged in business or commerce with that company; the information is not confidential or proprietary, and the city did not effectively prove the documents were predecisional.

“The city asks the OOR to assume that any emails generated regarding the proposal are subject to the exemption; however, any responsive records would not be internal, as they would have been submitted to Amazon, which is not an agency under the RTKL. Further, the OOR cannot assume that emails exchanged between the mayor and Amazon involve deliberation,” the ruling stated.

Amazon announced last year it was seeking a location for a second headquarters. Amazon's HQ2 could mean 50,000 jobs and $5 billion in investment to the winning city. Pittsburgh was named among 20 finalist locations last month.

The city, county, state and PGHQ2, a private organization created to prepare, submit and shepherd the bid, have refused to make the details public.

The state Office of Open Records ruling in favor of the Trib comes after the office has ruled that the city and county must make public the bid submitted to Amazon. PGHQ2 has encouraged the city and county to appeal that ruling.

Pittsburgh on Oct. 19 announced it had submitted its bid for Amazon's second headquarters. The next day, the Tribune-Review filed an open records request under the state's Right-to-Know Law seeking copies of any communication between the city and Amazon. The city denied the request a month later, and the Trib appeal the decision to state's Office of Open Records.

The Trib made similar requests for copies of letters, emails and other communication to Allegheny County and Gov. Tom Wolf's Office. The county responded that no documents requested by the Trib existed. The Trib appealed, and on Wednesday, the state denied the appeal and agreed with the county that the records do not exist. The Governor's Office complied with the Trib's request and sent a link to a letter posted online to Amazon on the behalf of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia signed by Wolf and state legislative leaders. The office did not include a copy of handwritten note Wolf said he wrote and sent to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. J.J. Abbott, a spokesman for Wolf, told the Trib the only copy of the note was the one sent to Amazon.

The city and county received 17 open records requests for Amazon-related information in the months after Amazon opened the competition. One requestor asked the city for a copy of the table of contents. It was denied.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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