A prominent Washington-area economist wrote an opinion piece welcoming the arrival of Amazon’s new headquarters in Northern Virginia at the suggestion of a company official who hoped to build public support for the project before a key Arlington County Board vote, emails show.
Stephen S. Fuller, a professor at George Mason University, also showed the article to Amazon public relations staff before publication and invited them to suggest changes — although he rejected their revisions.
“I want to [be] helpful to your — Amazon’s — mission and objectives with respect to its move to Arlington,” Fuller wrote on March 1 to Jill Shatzen Kerr, Amazon’s policy communications manager, according to emails obtained by The Washington Post under a Freedom of Information Act request.
Fuller first offered the opinion piece to The Washington Post, which turned it down. The Washington Business Journal published it March 21 under the headline, “Don’t underestimate Amazon HQ2’s importance.”
Fuller’s interactions with Amazon, which were not disclosed to the Washington Business Journal or its readers, raised questions about whether he was acting independently and transparently in penning the article, according to some ethics experts. The journal’s editor said the publication would have handled the article differently had it known.
(Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
“In omitting any mention that Amazon solicited, and had advance notice of, his opinion piece, Fuller invites questioning of his credibility,” said Michelle Mason Bizri, a University of Minnesota philosophy professor who studies ethical theory.
Fuller, who is frequently quoted in local and national media as an independent expert on the region’s economy, defended his actions, saying he was not paid for the article. He said he let Amazon officials see the piece ahead of publication and solicited their ideas for changes “as a courtesy,” adding, “I was being transparent with them.” He said he didn’t tell the Washington Business Journal about Amazon’s involvement because he “didn’t think it was material.”
Fuller said he sought to use Amazon’s arrival to reaffirm his past arguments about the importance of encouraging private-sector growth in the region to reduce the area’s economic dependence on the federal government.
“They didn’t pay us to do this,” Fuller said. “I just saw this as an opportunity for me to tell a broader audience what we’d been telling anybody who would listen all along.”
Fuller termed the matter “a non-story,” and concluded an interview on the matter by saying, “It’s very complicated, but I didn’t sell out.”
Other experts, together with GMU, defended Fuller. They also noted that Amazon did not pay him, and that the article expressed views that Fuller has espoused publicly in the past about the region’s need to attract private companies.
Fuller “has long trumpeted the value of tech investment in the D.C. metropolitan area,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education. “Academics with expertise in areas of public controversy ought to be engaged in the popular media. . . . My view is, ‘Good for professor Fuller.’ ”
Fuller, who recently announced he will retire early next year, has been the best-known authority on the Washington-area economy in his 25 years on the GMU faculty. In 2017, he helped found the Stephen S. Fuller Institute for Research on the Washington Region’s Economic Future, which is part of GMU’s Schar School of Policy and Government.
Fuller has conducted economic research for pay for both government and private entities. In November, he was the principal author of a state-sponsored study on the impact of locating the new Amazon headquarters in Arlington.
GMU received $45,980 for the paper, which was commissioned by the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, the agency that led the effort to woo Amazon to the state. The contract specified that Fuller would conduct media interviews about his results at no extra cost.
Asked whether his research was affected by the partnership’s strong interest in a positive finding about Amazon, Fuller said he employed the same economic and fiscal analytical tools that he has used for 40 years. He said he is used to having skeptics question his findings because of who paid for his work.
“I get this all the time when I do work for developers,” Fuller said. “My answer is, ‘Had you asked me to do the analysis, it would have been the same answer.’ ”
Stephen Moret, chief executive of the partnership, said he “expected Dr. Fuller’s analysis to be independent and objective, as I assumed that a distinguished university faculty member with his stature would be more concerned about the credibility of his work and his reputation than producing a certain outcome for us.”
Moret and Fuller said the state disagreed with some of Fuller’s findings. Although he forecast the Amazon project would have a very positive impact overall, Fuller estimated that the cost to the state for services for new Amazon employees would be higher than state agencies believed.
The op-ed grew out of a Feb. 21 conference at GMU where Jeannette Chapman, deputy director of the Fuller Institute, presented findings about what HQ2 would mean for the region.
Kerr, the Amazon communications manager, wrote to Fuller on March 1, suggesting the article. Her email was sent 15 days before the Arlington County Board was scheduled to vote on a package of $23 million in incentives for Amazon.
“As we get closer to the County Board vote, we are trying to be strategic on the PR side about how to amplify positive messages about the economic impact of our headquarters,” Kerr wrote. “We were wondering if you or someone at the Institute would be interested in penning an op-ed on this topic. The premise of this op-ed would be to describe this idea in detail and assure local residents that our new headquarters is a net positive.”
Fuller wrote back the same day saying he wanted to be “helpful” to Amazon and noted, “I have had the opportunity to address the question in several recent programs regarding … why [HQ2] is important to the region’s economic future.”
Fuller emailed Amazon a draft of his article on March 6, saying, “If you have comments or suggestions, I would be happy to have benefit of your thinking.”
Kerr wrote back later that day, saying her supervisor, policy communications head Jodi Seth, “agrees the content is really good but thinks it could be punched up a bit.” Kerr subsequently sent a revised version, written by Seth, which appeared designed to appeal to a broader audience, partly by stripping out many of the statistics in Fuller’s draft.
But Fuller rejected the changes in a March 8 email, saying it “did not read at all like I had written it. . . . To protect the objectivity of my message, I determined I would stay with the earlier version.”
The Post, which rejected the piece on March 11, said it does not discuss individual submissions unless and until they are published.
By the time the Washington Business Journal published the article, the Arlington County Board had unanimously approved the incentives package.
Journal editor in chief Vandana Sinha said that if the publication had known about Fuller’s interactions with Amazon regarding the article, it would probably have taken one of several steps.
“We may have disclosed it in an Editor’s Note or asked him to disclose that within the column itself,” Sinha said. “We may have reached out to Amazon directly to ask if they wanted to write an op-ed themselves. We may not have run it at all.”
Said Sinha: “We, and the business community at large, have often turned to Stephen Fuller and his institute for their expertise on the economy. And while anyone is, by definition, welcome to have their own position in these pieces and form their opinion as they wish, we also want to be as transparent as possible with our readers.”
GMU Provost S. David Wu found no fault with Fuller.
“We encourage our faculty to speak publicly on matters of local, national and global importance,” said Wu, who is also executive vice president at the school.
Fuller, he said, “has consistently made the observation that the Washington region is in great need to diversify its economic base, and the arrival of Amazon HQ2 fits this narrative well.”
Wu said there is “no evidence that he violated any stated policy of the university.”
Asked to comment about Fuller’s op-ed, Kerr said Amazon “had no involvement with the substance of [Fuller’s] report. Edits to the draft op-ed were stylistic in nature, not substantive, and the Institute rejected them, which was their prerogative.”
Two ethics experts said they saw arguments on both sides.
“Whether Professor Fuller took Amazon’s suggestions or not, his relationship with them creates a perceived conflict of interest not disclosed to readers,” said Don Heider, executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.
“On the other hand, thousands of op-ed pieces are published weekly, and do we as readers have any idea what individuals or organizations may have collaborated with the authors?” Heider said.
Aly Colón, professor of media ethics at Washington and Lee University, said it was unfair to jump to conclusions about Fuller based on the article.
“I don’t think we should automatically begin to cast aspersions on someone who has a track record and long history and expertise in an area,” he said.
But he added that the article would have been “stronger when any questions that might be raised about how the conclusions took place or were formed are transparent.”