Amazon invokes 'Pitbull' exemption to public bids for headquarters

10Investigates looks into Amazon's bid for local headquarters and how taxpayers could be affected

It may be a longshot for Tampa Bay to land Amazon’s next headquarters, dubbed “HQ2.”  However, if the region is to overcome challenges with its transportation, education and skilled labor force, it will likely be with cold, hard cash; except the public can’t find out how many tax dollars are being offered.

A joint bid by three economic development councils in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, as well as a separate bid by Manatee County’s EDC, are expected to be among dozens submitted to the retail giant Thursday, as part of a public subsidy “reverse auction.” 

Municipalities from around the country were given a short time to make pitches to Amazon for what incentives they would offer in exchange for the company to choose each respective community for its next campus.  A private bid from Manatee County developer Carlos Beruff was also reportedly submitted.  Amazon has said HQ2 would create billions of dollars in construction opportunities and tens of thousands of full-time jobs. 

However, when 10Investigates requested public records related to the value of the incentives – from taxes waived to land giveaways – local officials said Amazon was claiming a “trade secrets” exemption to public records laws, the same exemption rapper Pitbull invoked when 10Investigates first set out to find how many dollars he was getting from the state’s tourism agency. The ensuing controversy from 10Investigates’ story cost three top executives at Visit Florida their jobs.

Amazon reportedly submitted a letter to the state’s economic development agency, Enterprise Florida, invoking Florida State Statute 288.075, which protects a company from having to disclose trade secrets in relocation talks. 

However, First Amendment watchdogs tell 10Investigates the rule was crafted to primarily protect a company’s identity when it may be quietly debating relocation, which Amazon is clearly not. 

The statute suggests confidentiality only for proprietary information where "the disclosure of the information would cause harm to the business operations of the corporation," which Amazon would have had to spell out in its letter requesting the exemption. Hillsborough County officials would not share their copy of the letter, saying it too was exempt from public records laws under the same exemption.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran has taken aim at confidential agreements involving public money, using the House’s subpoena power to get records from Visit Florida, Visit Tampa Bay and numerous other agencies across the state.

One city decided to publicly withdraw from the bidding over having to "give away the farm." San Antonio cited the high cost of incentives and lack of necessary transit among numerous reasons it decided not to submit a bid by Thursday's deadline.

"It’s hard to imagine that a forward-thinking company like Amazon hasn’t already selected it’s preferred location," city leaders wrote in a letter to the company's CEO.  "And if that's the case, then this public process is, intentionally or not, creating a bidding war amongst states and cities."

Media outlets in Seattle, home to Amazon's original headquarters, have also written about watchdog warnings in recent months. The reports include soaring property values, rents that price out existing residents, underfunded transportation infrastructure and schools that aren't receiving enough revenue to keep up with growth.

Find 10Investigates' Noah Pransky on Facebook or follow his updates on Twitter. Send your story tips confidentially to npransky@wtsp.com.

© 2017 WTSP-TV


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