State asks court to keep Kuwait document secret

June 19, 1991|By John H. Gormley Jr. Blair S. Walker of The Sun's Business staff contributed to this article.

To avoid divulging the text of the agreement between Maryland and Kuwait to favor the port of Baltimore and Baltimore-Washington International Airport, the Schaefer administration has taken the rare step of petitioning the Baltimore Circuit Court for permission to keep the document confidential.

Under state public information laws, the Washington Post and The Evening Sun requested copies of the agreement shortly after it was announced in early May. On June 11, J. Randall Evans, the state's secretary of economic and employment development, filed the petition asking the court for permission to delay releasing the agreement.

Asking the court to delay release of a document is an extremely rare legal step, according to Jeffrey C. Smith, general counsel for The Baltimore Sun Co., which publishes The Evening Sun and The Sun. Mr. Smith, who has handled hundreds of freedom of information requests for the papers since he came to the company in 1986, said that in none of those cases did the state feel compelled to petition the court. "I've never seen one of these," he said.

The attorney general's office attests to the rarity of the procedure in its manual on the state's public information laws, Mr. Smith noted. The manual says, "The extraordinary nature of this remedy is reflected in the fact that the Attorney General's Office has used it on only two or three occasions."

Petitioning the court is an admission that the document is in the public realm and would have to be divulged unless the court intervened, Mr. Smith said, referring to the attorney general's manual.

Evelyn O. Cannon, the assistant attorney general representing the state, said "It's not unheard of" to file such petitions, but she conceded the practice was not a frequent one.

In its petition, the state asks for permission "to continue to withhold inspection of a public record . . . because disclosure would cause substantial injury to the public interest."

A press release by the governor's office issued May 2 described the agreement as "a Memorandum of Understanding that will give Maryland aunique and important role in the rebuilding of Kuwait." The release said that "companies in the United States shipping cargo to Kuwait will be notified by Kuwaiti officials to route shipments through the Port of Baltimore or Baltimore-Washington International Airport whenever it is economically feasible."

Citing intense competition along the East Coast, the state's petition said that "public disclosure of the Memorandum at this time will likely impair the competitive position of the Port of Baltimore, threatening any competitive advantage that has been achieved through the negotiations. . . ."

Page Boinest, a spokeswoman in the governor's press office, said that the memorandum was not a formal contract but simply part of a series of negotiations that may lead to formal contracts. She said she did not believe that the Schaefer administration has conceded that the agreement is a public document that would have to be divulged in the absence of dispensation from the court.

She suggested that Kuwait might be upset if the language of the document were released.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer and Mr. Evans were in Singapore yesterday as part of a trade mission to the Far East and could not be contacted.

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