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Maryland Legislators Seek Reassurance on Port Sale

Top state transportation and homeland security officials sought to reassure Maryland lawmakers Friday that the proposed takeover of Baltimore port operations by a United Arab Emirates company would not compromise port security.

The testimony came hours after Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced he is more comfortable with the process taking place in the federal government to ensure that the sale poses no security threats to the United States or the Port of Baltimore.

State-owned Dubai Ports World is set to purchase the British Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co., which is currently under contract to load and unload container ships in the Port of Baltimore's Seagirt Marine Terminal and five other ports around the country.

"This is a known entity," Ehrlich said of Dubai. "My confidence has increased, but it is not where it needs to be."

Legislators questioned U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., at a joint briefing about steps being taken to investigate the sale. Mikulski and other congressional leaders have taken issue with the way the Bush administration handled the sale and vowed to take action to give Congress more oversight in similar deals.

"The law was not followed, due diligence was not done and I find this absolutely unacceptable," she said. "(Congress is) not saying stop the deal. We're saying slow the deal until we know it's an OK deal."

Democratic Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah voiced concern that the only reason there was such strong aversion to the deal is because the company is based in an Arab country.

"Work with me now," she said. "The reason we are sitting here is because this is owned by the Arabs."

Mikulski disagreed.

"I would have yellow flashing lights about any nation owning (the port), even a NATO nation," she said. "I don't have a beef with the UAE."

Afterward, three Ehrlich administration officials attempted to quell the notion that the deal involved the sale of the Port of Baltimore itself. Dubai Ports World would only serve as an "intermediary" for labor and play a supervisory role in the day-to-day operations of the terminal, said Secretary of Transportation Robert L. Flanagan.

The contract P. & O. currently has with the port allows the state to terminate the agreement at anytime and regulate the hiring and firing of employees.

"We have probably the most control of any port," Flanagan said.

Flanagan's department has already sent out requests for information to find stevedore companies that could take over operations in event that the contract is terminated early or not renewed in Oct. 2007, when it is scheduled to be reviewed.

"The governor wants us to preserve every action at our disposal," he said. "It's difficult to say what is the preferred option."

Flanagan added that in response to the proposed sale, all new employees at the Port of Baltimore will undergo background checks. Current employees could continue to work without the checks.

"Quite frankly, I am optimistic," Flanagan said. "I am confident that we can come up with a win-win situation here."

But, not all the lawmakers were convinced.

"Warn me when you're going to say something pessimistic," said Democratic Delegate Peter V. R. Franchot. "This deal looks dead to me."

Capital News Service contributed to this report.