The Bulletin

Virginia promised Amazon it will withhold as many public records as possible and warn the company when it can’t

By: - November 13, 2018 5:35 pm

Gov. Ralph Northam made a video announcing Amazon’s new headquarters in Northern Virginia, borrowing the state’s recognizable tourism logo and slogan.

Officials in Virginia have promised Amazon they will withhold as much information as they legally can about the retail-giant’s new Virginia headquarters, which will benefit from direct state incentives totaling $550 million.

And when information can’t be withheld under state public records laws, state officials have contractually agreed to warn the company so that they can take their own crack at suppressing disclosure.

In the memorandum of understanding between the state and Amazon, state officials promised to “give the company prior written notice sufficient (in no event less than two business days) to allow the company to seek a protective order or other appropriate remedy, disclose only such information as is required under the applicable law, cooperate with the company in responding to any such records requests, and limit disclosure, refuse to disclose, and redact and/or omit portions of materials to the maximum extent permitted by applicable law.”

New York, which inked its own agreement with Amazon, did not offer similar concessions.

The promise to limit disclosure to the “maximum extent permitted” is in direct conflict with the spirit of Virginia’s public records law, which states exemptions should be narrowly construed “to promote an increased awareness by all persons of governmental activities and afford every opportunity to citizens to witness the operations of government.”

The state’s top economic development officer, Stephen Moret, said Tuesday that all information relevant to the state’s enforcement of the contract will be publicly available.

“Bear in mind, the code of Virginia requires us to report on jobs, wages and capital investment,” he said. “What would be the thing someone would want to know that would be in the public interest to know?”

He said the state did not discuss specific scenarios with Amazon, but assumes the company is primarily concerned with protecting intellectual property.

“I don’t think there’s any there there other than that they’re going to be doing a lot of really innovative stuff, coming up with new products, new ideas and there’s a lot of proprietary content that we might have records of that would not be appropriate to share publicly.”

Still, such restrictive terms are unusual in Virginia, even in the secretive world of state and local economic development shops, where employees refer to projects by codenames and are shielded by broad exemptions in the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

But they are increasing common terms requested by big tech companies, said Virginia Coalition for Open Government Director Meghan Rhyne, who noted a Columbia Journalism Review article on the subject published earlier this year:

Such meddling into when and how a public body might release public records under the Freedom of Information Act represents an additional bureaucratic layer for reporters. … Such control, in effect, allows companies like Facebook to stifle debate about the generous tax incentives they receive, at a time when a growing body of research says such giveaways don’t work—even as they drain public coffers to the tune of $45 billion a year, according to a report by the Upjohn Institute.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.