Coming to U.S. ports to make case for deal

Dubai Ports World, P&O executives stop at Seagirt to say sale poses no threat to Americans' security

March 09, 2006|By MEREDITH COHN AND GWYNETH SHAW | MEREDITH COHN AND GWYNETH SHAW,SUN REPORTERS

After three weeks of absorbing heavy criticism, the companies involved in a deal that would shift work at six U.S. ports from a British-owned firm to one owned by the government of Dubai are building on their Washington lobbying effort with a high-powered public relations offensive in the port cities.

Officials from P&O Ports North America Inc., a subsidiary of the British cargo company, made its first stop outside the entrance to Seagirt Marine Terminal yesterday, hours before a House panel voted to block the deal. Company executives said they would make their way to several other cities where they have contracts in an effort to convince a skeptical public that it poses no threat to homeland security.

On Capitol Hill, Dubai Ports World, which is buying Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., has sent top executives and employed big names such as former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole to help its cause.

"There's been a lot of misinformation about the nature and impact of this purchase," Robert Scavone, an executive vice president of P&O, told reporters gathered at Seagirt yesterday morning.

The executives said the companies were caught off guard by opposition that mushroomed last month after the deal was cleared by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, the government panel that reviews such overseas investment. Officials said they were moved to act when they saw headlines such as "Ports being sold to Terrorists" and other "gross distortions of fact."

In Washington, yesterday's action by the House Appropriations Committee was one of several efforts made by lawmakers who say they have security concerns with an Arab government - or any foreign government-owned company - having a role at American seaports.

Dubai is a member of the United Arab Emirates, officially a U.S. ally but also home to two Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers.

DP World's team of lobbyists and public relations consultants includes the Washington law and lobbying firm of Alston & Bird LLP, which registered five lobbyists to work on behalf of the company in mid-February, around the time the government's approval of the sale became public.

APCO Worldwide, another public affairs firm, registered last week, according to Senate disclosure records.

Among those working for Alston & Bird are Bob Dole, the former Republican senator from Kansas and husband of North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole. Jonathan Winer, once an aide to Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, is also part of the team, as is Kathryn Marks, a former staffer for former Sen. John Edwards, a North Carolina Democrat. Dole said he is not directly lobbying Congress.

The consulting lobbying firm Clark & Weinstock is working on behalf of the United Arab Emirates.

The firm's roster includes former Rep. Vin Weber, a Minnesota Republican who is close to the White House.

At a House hearing last week, DP World's chief operating officer, Edward H. Bilkey, said Carol M. Browner, who headed the Environmental Protection agency during the Clinton administration, had attended a meeting on Capitol Hill about the deal.

Bilkey said that Browner has not been hired to lobby on the deal, but that the firm she works for, which is headed by former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, has helped DP World with its business interests in China.

Under intense questioning from Republican Rep. Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania, Bilkey acknowledged that former President Bill Clinton had called Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, the chief executive of DP World, to recommend ex-White House press secretary Joe Lockhart as a lobbyist. Bilkey said he knew nothing about the content of the conversation, only that it happened.

Clinton's wife, New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, has been one of the most vocal opponents of the DP World deal.

Bilkey has testified at several Capitol Hill hearings on the sale over the past two weeks, and some of the company's lobbyists were involved in brokering the compromise in which the company agreed to submit to the second, more in-depth review of the potential national security implications of its purchase of P&O.

For now, P&O officials say they will leave the Washington lobbying to DP World. Frank Fogarty, P&O senior vice president for sales and marketing, said he'll be busy lining up meetings in other port cities.

"We want to be transparent," Fogarty said. "We have nothing to hide."

P&O is operating as a separate unit run by Westerners until a more extensive 45-day review is completed.

DP World is expected to keep the P&O brand name and its largely American work force permanently.

But at Seagirt yesterday, P&O executives acknowledged that such commitments have clearly not been enough.

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