A series of e-mails have recently surfaced and are projecting the relationship between Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, into a very questionable light. Making the issue all the more serious is the fact that Uber recently launched the pilot program of its driver less cars in the city. The letters not only bring the program into dispute, but also call for inquiries into just how the cab aggregator creates and uses links with politicians to fulfill its own means and how far, the latter are allowed to go in the name of economic growth.
The letters were obtained by Motherboard, using the Pennsylvania Right to Know Act and are frankly astonishing. The communication took place over a period of time and involves sever other Uber executives, besides Kalanick. What’s most surprising, was Mayor Peduto’s attitude towards the company — which resembled that of say an advisor or its attorney, rather than what would have befitted him as the elected representative of a city.
Check this out for instance. Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission recently levied an $11.4 million fine against Uber, for operating in the state without permission. Mayor Peduto made an appeal to the commission in which he asked that the company be pardoned and the fine waived. The letter was also signed by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and argues that in light of the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of business Uber was bringing to the state, the penalty should be waived. The letter also goes on to talk about all the jobs that were being created by Uber.
All this could be lost if we send the message that Pennsylvania is not a welcoming place for 21st century businesses and other job-creators looking to make our state a home
While the letter could perhaps be passed off as an honest appeal made by a Mayor who was extremely concerned about the economic welfare of his city, Peduto was in communication with Kalanick and company from even before he made the appeal. While that alone could bring his motives into question, get a load of the message he sent to the Uber CEO an hour after the ruling:
Bad news out of Harrisburg….
Yup, that is it. Not an official letter informing the company of the fine or anything, rather a very intimate note that would have been more suitable had it come from an Kalanik’s Co-founder, or a fellow board member.
And that is not all of it. On receiving an automated e-mail from Uber regarding his trip history, Peduto forwarded it to Kalanik with the following message:
218 miles. Any other mayors come close?
Aren’t we all the best of buddies here? Coming from an elected representative to the CEO of a very powerful company, the e-mail is unseemly, not to mention somewhat sycophantic. While it is not up to us to discuss and dissect the personal relationship that may exist between Peduto and Kalanik, it does make one wonder: Is someone who obviously seems so much “In League” with Uber, fit to pass judgments on matters that involve the company?
The question is important, make no mistake. Uber has a highly involved presence in Pittsburgh and the letters may possibly reveal why. When the politicians are this friendly with you, well, what better place to open up shop. The city was also surprisingly open to the prospect of Uber testing its self-driving cars in the city — at a time when the rest of the world is busy tightening regulations that control the use of this technology outside testing environment.
Speaking with Motherboard on the topic, an Uber spokesperson said,
We’re proud to have our self-driving research hub in Pittsburgh, which has been welcoming and supportive of innovation. We’re always in conversation with mayors, state officials and others about Uber and the future of transportation—and it should come as no surprise that after the state PUC levied the highest fine of all time, we asked for their support.
The statement above refers to the fines levied by Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission, upon Uber and Lyft, for illegal operation in the state. While Lyft received a relatively mild fine of $250,000, the fine levied against Uber stood at a staggering $50 million. It was later reduced to $11.4 million.
Meanwhile, Uber also contacted elected officials across Pennsylvania for their support for its appeal to reduce the amount of the fine. Company lobbyist, Jennifer Krusius, also requested Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald for his support on the matter, asking him to issue a press release on the matter. Fitzgerald refused, citing it as a “matter of policy” and stating that he would not be comfortable lending weight to a matter placed before the commission. Eventually though, he acquiesced to the request.
Peduto meanwhile, had no such stipulations from the beginning and worked with Uber’s communications team to draft a release. While Peduto and Uber may seem to excuse all this in the name of business and innovation, to me it seems as if Uber is aiming to and is able to, get public servants lobbying upon its behalf. Certainly not a scenario that I would like to prevail in my city.
Meanwhile, the whole series of events and the e-mail makes you wonder about whether this city government — or any other ruling body in any other city or state of the world –that for whatever reasons, is on such friendly terms with a corporation like Uber, truly be able to put the good of its citizens before the good of the company?