Lawsuit seeks to unlock Minnesota’s failed Amazon bid

Minnesota's economic development agency faces a lawsuit over how it handled its unsuccessful bid for the new Amazon headquarters, a case that could either validate or rein in steps used to shield government incentive packages from scrutiny.

A watchdog group called Public Record Media announced Wednesday it was suing the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. The group says the state agency improperly withheld details of Minnesota's bid last fall to land Amazon's second headquarters. Minnesota was among an avalanche of states that made bids to Amazon, but it was knocked out in the first cut.

DEED has said since last fall that the state's proposal is subject to a non-disclosure agreement -- Amazon requested confidentiality and documents show state officials signed off on that. The agency also said the formal bid, which included possible sites and subsidy offerings by local governments around the Twin Cities, was compiled by a non-government partner known as Greater MSP and therefore not an official state record.

Public Records Media's Matt Ehling said even though Minnesota didn't make Amazon's cut, it's still important that the full information be made public.

"If nobody steps in and says the taxpayers need to see this kind of information, these kind of hazy arrangements will continue to go on where there is deniability about 'We don't have the bid or we can't show you the bid because this outside party has it,'" Ehling said at a Capitol news conference. "That has to stop."

Ehling's group contends government officials jointly maintained a file sharing network with Greater MSP where drafts of the proposal were uploaded. Participation by public workers, the lawsuit says, should make those materials covered by the state open records law.

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Media organizations, including MPR News, requested bid materials and correspondence among officials. Two boxes with thousands of pages at DEED headquarters were made available for review, but those lack a detailed accounting of what was offered to Amazon beyond access to existing loan and grant programs.

DEED has yet to respond to the lawsuit filed in Ramsey County District Court.

“All information concerning the State of Minnesota’s role, and offers of state taxpayer incentives to Amazon have been publicly disclosed. Greater MSP assembled and submitted the regions complete proposal for this project. The remainder of the proposal materials are in Greater MSP’s possession and are within their purview to disclose,” said DEED Commissioner Shawntera Hardy in an email response to MPR News.

Aside from the information sought, the lawsuit seeks to recover costs incurred by the group and civil penalties against DEED for alleged violations of the Data Practices Act. Ehling said his organization "is willing to take this all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court, if necessary."