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Records reveal Hogsett office's efforts to stiff-arm press on HQ2 bid

August 3, 2018

The requests were coming in fast and furious from reporters wanting to interview Mayor Joe Hogsett about Indianapolis’ bid for Amazon's secondary headquarters, known as HQ2.

Fox Business News in New York wanted Hogsett to go on the air with anchor Maria Bartiromo.

CNBC wanted Hogsett to participate in its national “Closing Bell” program.

A CBS reporter in Chicago wanted to come to Indianapolis and sit down with Hogsett. “My bosses now say they want this story sooner rather than later, so I would love to talk today if possible,” the reporter, Charlie Brooks, wrote in a Sept. 12 email to Hogsett’s spokeswoman, Taylor Schaffer.

But Schaffer was not interested. She sent the reporters press releases but turned down interview requests.

“At the moment, we don’t have much else to share,” she replied to Brooks.

For months, city officials hunkered down and kept mum on nearly all aspects of the bid process, even as reporters clamored for interviews with Hogsett about why Indianapolis would make a good home for Amazon’s second headquarters.

A review of dozens of emails, obtained by IBJ through a formal public-records request, shows that city officials deliberately sought to keep a low profile, not wanting to upset the city’s chances of winning the competition.

When Indianapolis made the cut of 20 finalists in January, a reporter for WISH-TV, Tim McNicholas, asked for a city official to go on camera and “talk about all the excitement around the project and whether that will help our chances.”

Schaffer forwarded the request to several other city officials, with the caution: “I’m not sure that all things considered, this is worth our time or in our best interest.”

Angela Smith Jones, the city’s deputy mayor of economic development, replied: “Yeah, we can lay low.”

Amazon has insisted finalists keep the details of their bids confidential, according to reporting from CNBC.

While laying low most of time, city officials referred reporters to an arm of the Indy Chamber called Indy Partnership, which was coordinating the bid. Indy Partnership is a private entity and thus has no obligation to supply records to the public.

When MuckRock, an online not-for-profit organization that assists reporters and the public in filing governmental requests, asked the city in January for a copy of its bid, along with incentives or fees associated with the project, Schaffer directed that outlet to the Indy Chamber.

“Please note that the assembling of the RFQ was led by the Indy Chamber’s regional partnership,” she wrote. “Any related project expenses were paid for by the Indy Chamber.”

Other news organizations—including BuzzFeed and Atlantic Media—also asked for documents and received similar responses.

But when some local experts asked City Hall privately for guidance in discussing the Amazon bid with the media, Schaffer was happy to respond.

On Sept. 14, Lara Beck, former deputy communications director for former Mayor Bart Peterson and now owner of an Indianapolis communications agency, told Schaffer in an email she was going to appear on a local TV program, "Inside Indiana Business,” to talk about the effort to attract Amazon.

“Do you have any bullets, or key thoughts, you’d like me to attempt to convey? (Note I say ‘attempt,’ because I’m generally a bit blotto by 2:45 p.m.”)

Schaffer sent her a fact sheet with 12 talking points, including track records of local businesses for attracting tens of millions of dollars in venture capital, as well as information on acquisitions and public offerings.

“There will also be a number of incentive programs the city has at their disposal, including tax credits and exemptions, relocation and workforce grants, and other permitting and fee reductions,” according to the fact sheet.

Schaffer also sent several paragraphs of guidance to Mike Langellier, CEO of TechPoint, an advocacy group for the city’s technology sector, as he was about to go on television to talk about Amazon. She urged him to emphasize the region’s recent successes in talent recruitment. Her goal was to debunk the idea that Indianapolis couldn’t attract and retain young techies.

“We believe we can continue to take strides to tear down these out-of-date narratives and reveal the metro area as a vibrant cultural landscape where you can live, work and play,” Schaffer wrote on Sept. 14.

On Oct. 10, Schaffer confirmed that Hogsett would meet with the news and editorial-page staff of The Indianapolis Star the following day for an hour but didn’t promise that Hogsett would talk about the Amazon bid.

“I’m sure Mayor Hogsett will want to talk about the budget, public safety and neighborhood development,” she wrote to the paper’s opinion editor, Tim Swarens, who had requested a meeting.

But Swarens was not making any promises in return. “There probably will be a question or two about the Amazon bid,” he responded.

Hogsett did agree to discussing HQ2 on some occasions. On Jan. 18, for example, after Indianapolis was named one of 20 finalists for the project, Schaffer told the Associated Press she would grant a 15-minute one-on-one with Hogsett at City Hall. Hogsett also discussed the development with IBJ reporter Hayleigh Colombo on Jan. 18.

Hogsett also has broached the topic in a limited way in public and on social media. But, in general, city officials kept their heads down when asked about the topic.

On Feb. 1, Schaffer told CNBC that Hogsett wouldn’t participate in its "Closing Bell" program.

“I don’t think we are going to be able to make this work,” she wrote. “I’m sorry!”

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