Shipper decries leaders of port

Ehrlich's appointees are called incompetent

Line threatens to look elsewhere

Schaefer warns governor of possible ramifications

February 24, 2005|By Andrew A. Green and Michael Dresser | Andrew A. Green and Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

One of the largest shipping lines at the port of Baltimore is considering curtailing its business there because of what a company official called the "political incompetence" of Ehrlich administration officials running the port.

Capt. E. Lorenzo Di Casagrande, vice president of Mediterranean Shipping Company Inc., wrote that Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan is jeopardizing long-term business relationships by stripping port Director James White of his authority and replacing seasoned workers with people who don't have "the slightest idea of the shipping industry".

Mediterranean -- which brought in 140,000 containers last year and is the largest containership customer at the port -- had been planning to bring 30,000 additional containers to Baltimore this year and was considering using the port for its cruise ships, Di Casagrande wrote. Those plans are on hold, he added.

"Under the present circumstances ... we may be in the condition to look to other alternative ports and forget Baltimore," Di Casagrande wrote in a letter to Baltimore lawyer Peter G. Angelos, who Di Casagrande said is an old friend who he thought could help him get through to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Angelos did not return a phone message yesterday, and Ehrlich, through a spokesman, declined to comment on the letter.

Flanagan defended the management of the port yesterday. He said he and the governor spoke with Di Casagrande at an event last month, and the official expressed none of the concerns in his letter.

"It's all part of a rumor that I think Captain Di Casagrande has fallen victim to," Flanagan said. He is set to meet with Di Casagrande on March 16.

The letter comes at a time when port management is under increasing criticism from lawmakers and some in the industry.

Two weeks ago, an official with John Deere & Co., a major port customer, wrote an e-mail saying the state's decision to close Midwestern sales offices and fire veteran marketing officers could damage relations with the company.

Harry Hussein, general manager in Baltimore for Haul North America, a large shipping line with about 90 port calls in Baltimore a year, said he worries that White will be fired or will leave because of administration interference at the port.

"It's a shame that he's had to endure interference from the governor's administration, and from people who have no clue as to the maritime industry and what the port means to the local economy," Hussein said.

And Comptroller William Donald Schaefer -- who as governor brought Mediterranean to the port -- complained to Ehrlich at last week's Board of Public Works meeting about how the port is being run.

Yesterday, Schaefer said he believes White is one of the best port managers in the country but that the administration is removing the support staff he needs to succeed.

"I'm not sure Secretary Flanagan really is seasoned enough to understand the importance of good people at the port," said Schaefer, a close ally of Ehrlich's. "You can't just have someone who sold bananas and have him represent the port."

White said he has not been asked to leave and is trying to win Flanagan's respect. He said many excellent staff members remain, but the administration has put people without maritime experience in high positions, which has been difficult for customers and other employees.

"They asked me to embrace them and give them training. I've been trying to do that. Unfortunately, they've been brought in at such a high level, that they have very experienced maritime people answering to them. That makes the situation difficult," he said.

In an interview, Di Casagrande said the new employees at the port "have never seen a ship in their lives" and have made Baltimore a laughingstock in the industry.

He described a recent industry event in New York -- which he says he was told about by a customer -- where one of his shipping customers asked a newly appointed port marketing representative what the Port of Baltimore could do for the customer's company.

Di Casagrande said that instead of providing business reasons to choose Baltimore, the representative -- whom he would not name -- told the customer the port could provide crab feasts, golfing outings and tickets to sporting events, Di Casagrande said.

"That night became a joke" in the shipping industry, he said.

"What was achieved during the last 18 years was due to hard work in creating the proper respect among all the parties involved," Di Casagrande wrote of the port's progress. "It is sad to see it destroyed by political incompetence."

Flanagan, however, said White is in complete operational control.

"We have an excellent team over there, and the proof is in the growing business of the port," he said.

Flanagan, an attorney and former member of the House of Delegates, said container traffic increased by about 15 percent from 2003 to 2004. The latest figures available for 2004 had it on pace to top 7.5 million tons for the year, up from 7.18 million tons in 2003.

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