Deal affecting port upsets mayor

Government of United Arab Emirates would have influence on some operations

February 19, 2006|By JULIE BELL | JULIE BELL,SUN REPORTER

Mayor Martin O'Malley joined yesterday the growing number of politicians condemning a business deal that would put a company controlled by the United Arab Emirates in charge of running certain port operations in Baltimore and a handful of other U.S. cities.

"It's outrageous and irresponsible to turn over a port to any foreign government," O'Malley said during a chilly, outdoor news conference in Canton, where port buildings were visible across the harbor.

O'Malley, a Democratic candidate for governor, sharply criticized the Bush administration for signing off on the deal. Dubai Ports World would acquire London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co. (P&O) for a reported $6.8 billion. P&O, which is not controlled by the British government, oversees container cargo operations at the publicly owned Seagirt and Dundalk marine terminals here.

The deal would give Dubai Ports World certain port operations in New York, Newark, N.J., Philadelphia, Miami and New Orleans. A company at the Miami port is suing to block the takeover there, the Associated Press reported.

Members of Congress from several states have asked the Bush administration to review its approval of the deal. Last week, White House spokesman Scott McClellan defended the administration's "rigorous review" of proposed foreign investments for national security concerns.

O'Malley said his opposition is not related to the fact Dubai Ports World is based in an Arab nation, saying he would oppose control of a U.S. port by any foreign government. But he noted that though the United Arab Emirates is a U.S. ally, it also was one of a handful of governments to officially recognize Afghanistan's former Taliban government, and he expressed concern about the country being "a key transfer point" for nuclear components on their way to North Korea, Libya and Iran, as was reported in The Washington Post.

O'Malley, who said he would try to rally opposition among U.S. mayors, was joined at the news conference by state Del. Brian K. McHale, a Baltimore Democrat and longshoreman, and U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, whose congressional district includes the port of Baltimore. Ruppersberger has called for congressional hearings on the proposed sale.

It was unclear yesterday, however, what power the three politicians and others have to review the deal. P&O's shareholders agreed to it last week. And the acquisition was approved by a U.S. Treasury Department-headed panel that vets security concerns when foreign companies invest in U.S. industry. The committee's approval would be withdrawn only if it finds one of the companies submitted false or incomplete information, a department spokeswoman said.

The terminals where Dubai would have a contract to handle container work here are overseen by the Maryland Port Administration. The Maryland Port Commission, an associated body, also has the ability to review the deal, McHale said, but he didn't think it would have the wherewithal to conduct a thorough investigation.

"They need to stand up as well," O'Malley said of the Maryland Port Administration. "They should not be rolling over."

Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Robert Menendez of New Jersey introduced legislation last week to prohibit any foreign-owned company from buying U.S. port operations. Other politicians who have voiced concerns about the deal include Republican Sens. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, and Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland.

juliana.bell@baltsun.com

Wire reports contributed to this article.

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