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Utah Records Committee Rules Government, Defense Contractor Can Keep Subsidies Contract Secret

Utah has refused to release key information in its contract to grant tax refunds to Northrop Grumman, which is producing intercontinental ballistic missiles in the state.

Words: Taylor Barnes
Pictures: Taylor Barnes
Date:

The Utah State Records Committee (SRC), an administrative body that hears public records disputes each month, ruled last week that the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity (GOEO) could keep key information in its contract to subsidize Northrop Grumman’s intercontinental ballistic missile production out of public view, citing a confidentiality agreement signed between the nuclear weapons-maker and the government in 2018.

That confidentiality agreement, however, says that records that can be deemed “protected” under state law are “not to include any final contract between GOED and the company.” (Read the confidentiality agreement between GOED, the precursor to GOEO, and Northrop Grumman here.) Inkstick Media’s attorneys argued that the document the media outlet is seeking should be released because it is indeed the full, final contract between the parties and should be available to the public. 

The government refuses to make public the heart of the agreement, Attachment B, which includes a table with the number of jobs and projected salaries the company must create in order to qualify for the state subsidies.

The SRC ruling stems from a public records request made by Inkstick Media in 2022. The government has released only a redacted version of the economic development contract. (Read that contract here). The government refuses to make public the heart of the agreement, Attachment B, which includes a table with the number of jobs and projected salaries the company must create in order to qualify for the state subsidies.

“This has been very hard for the committee to decide what to do on this because we can see both sides of the case,” said Marie Cornwall, a citizen representative on the committee. “I think it should be on the record that we couldn’t figure out why some of the redactions were redacted.”

State Records Committee
The Utah State Record Committee hearing on July 20, 2023. Photo by Taylor Barnes.

In the cases heard that day before Inkstick Media’s appeal, the records committee deliberated extensively in public, giving petitioners seeking access to police and prison records insight into their decision-making process. However, in Inkstick’s case, the records committee went behind closed doors to view an unredacted copy of the contract; when members returned to the hearing room, one asked the government about the date of the confidentiality agreement, and the committee then voted unanimously in favor of the government and Northrop Grumman.

However, the records committee ruling is not final, and Inkstick Media is allowed to appeal the records denial in court.

“Russia and China Are Probably Watching Very Closely”

The debate among attorneys for Inkstick, GOEO, and Northrop Grumman ranged from elementary topics, such as whether all or just some of a final contract needed to be released to the public, to existential ones, such as why the public has an interest in the business of weapons of mass destruction

Northrop Grumman is the largest nuclear weapons contractor in the world, and the new intercontinental ballistic missile is its largest nuclear project, according to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. 

Rocket Garden outside ICBM plant-2
Rocket Garden outside Northrop Grumman intercontinental ballistic missile plant in Utah. Photo by Taylor Barnes in July 2023.

In light of the nature of the project, Todd Jenson, an assistant attorney general representing GOEO, argued that the redacted information wasn’t just a business or fiscal matter but a national security one. 

“Competitors look at [this type of public record]. Not only business competitors but Russia and China are probably watching very closely what Northrop Grumman is doing. I guarantee they are,” he said. “So it’s not just a national concern or a state concern, but internationally this is a concern.”

Mark Wagner, an attorney representing Northrop Grumman, said the ability to keep such information secret was part of why the defense contractor chose Utah for its intercontinental ballistic missile business as opposed to states like California, Arizona, or Florida that “offer incentives that frankly are financially more generous than what Utah has to offer.”

The confidentiality provisions Utah is citing to keep Northrop Grumman’s economic development contract out of public view, he said, are “part of why they decided to provide their business to the state of Utah, to create the jobs here within the state of Utah.” 

Feature photos were taken by Taylor Barnes on her visit to Utah in July 2023.  

Taylor Barnes

Field Reporter

Taylor Barnes in Inkstick Media's field reporter for military affairs and the defense industry. She is a grantee with the Ploughshares Fund and is based in Atlanta. Follow her work at @tkbarnes. Tips? tbarnes@inkstickmedia.com

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