A court exposes an Amazon collusion

A court exposes an Amazon collusion

No one should be surprised that City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County officials say they will appeal a Common Pleas Court ruling that the region’s bid for Amazon’s “HQ2” obviously is a matter of public record.

After all, by means they deem fair — but those repeatedly found to be afoul of the law — these officials long have been hell-bent on keeping from the public how much public money has been pledged to the uber-profitable online retailing behemoth to locate its second headquarters outside of Seattle in Greater Pittsburgh.

And they keep spending ever more public money to keep pressing their dubious defense.

But there’s a whooper of a nugget in Senior Judge W. Terrence O’Brien’s no-punches-pulled ruling from last week that raises serious public policy ethical questions about those seeking to perpetuate this cloak of secrecy.

As the Post-Gazette reminded in a Thursday dispatch, city and county attorneys “also maintained the proposal was exempt from release because it contained confidential proprietary information and trade secrets offered by PGHQ2, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development arm set up to submit the region’s bid.”

But Judge O’Brien proved he’s not the rube who just fell off the turnip truck that city, county and conference leaders believe taxpayers to be.

The judge noted that Allegheny Conference CEO Stefani Pashman told the court she did not know if city and county officials approved of PGHQ2’s supposedly independent submission to Amazon.

But O’Brien found that not only Pashman but also Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald signed the cover letter attached to the Amazon bid. In fact, they were the only signatories.

And what might such a finding of fact more than suggest? That Pittsburgh, Allegheny County and Allegheny Conference officials colluded to establish a shell organization in an attempt to circumvent the commonwealth’s Right-To-Know Law.

As the judge also noted, PGHQ2 has no employees, Peduto and Fitzgerald’s chiefs of staff were considered members of the board of managers and attended board meetings during their city/county work hours, the P-G reported.

Most reasonable people would call that what it was – a subterfuge in prosecution of a sham.

Such behavior — which should be ripe for review by city and county ethics overseers, if not the state Attorney General’s Office — has no place in the execution of public policy.

And do remember, the city and county, after the deadline for briefs in the matter had passed, sent a private letter to the judge seeking redactions from its 300-page Amazon bid should he rule as he did Wednesday last. He rejected that request.

It’s pretty clear that city, county and conference officials, in the name of acting for the public benefit, acted against it. And that’s shameful behavior by those claiming to be “public servants.”

Allegheny County voters will be asked to raise their property taxes by a quarter-mill in Tuesday’s election to create the innocuous-sounding “Children’s Fund.”

Never mind that it is ill-conceived, a perversion of the county Home Rule Charter’s amendment process. Never mind that it is ill-defined, filled with generic feel-good programs. And never mind that how the money will be administered and applied would be settled only after voters agree to have their pockets picked.

Even the Post-Gazette has urged, in an editorial, that voters reject this referendum, calling it a “flawed approach.”  But that editorial came with its own public policy flaw.

While it properly derides that the draft enabling legislation prepared by proponents would bar county officials from ever lowering the tax rate, it laments that the measure would not allow those same officials to “reallocate the proceeds for other purposes, such as paving roads.”

History, of course, is instructive in this matter.

Two decades ago, public officials perverted the intent of the Regional Asset District’s piggyback sales tax to serve as the primary financing vehicles for two new North Shore stadiums — despite the electorate’s resounding defeat of “The Stadiums Tax.”

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).