Days after Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said he was exploring options to block the sale of port of Baltimore operations to a United Arab Emirates company, members of his administration said the governor has no position on whether the deal should go through.
The sale of operations contracts for six East Coast ports, strongly backed by the Bush administration, has riled members of both parties in Congress and in state and local governments. On Wednesday, Mayor Martin O'Malley sent Ehrlich a letter asking that he co-sign an appeal to Bush to stop the deal, but Ehrlich press secretary Greg Massoni said the governor wouldn't do so.
"It's a political document," Massoni said yesterday. "It would be dangerous to sign a letter from someone who doesn't understand the issue."
O'Malley spokesman Steve Kearney said of the letter: "We thought this was something we could work on together."
Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver said the governor's main concern is with the lack of advance communication from the federal government and that he is determining whether the deal would affect port security.
"There are really no yeses or nos to ... all these questions as to whether the governor supports the sale or whether the governor thinks it poses a security risk," DeLeaver said. "All those questions will be answered in this fact-finding mission."
All options - including voiding the stevedoring contract in question - are on the table, but there is no timetable for a decision, DeLeaver said.
Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who is running for U.S. Senate, staked out a somewhat different position from Ehrlich yesterday, saying worries about the deal are justified. He said he is concerned with how the port operations contract ties in to security and called for an extensive public review.
The $6.8 billion sale would transfer operations from the British firm Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co. to Dubai Ports World, a state-owned company in the United Arab Emirates. The deal was approved by the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States but has faced a chorus of criticism from Democrats and Republicans.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and House Speaker Dennis Hastert have threatened legislation to put the deal on hold. Ehrlich spoke with Hastert about the deal this week, DeLeaver said.
Several Maryland politicians, including Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who is running for governor; and U.S. Reps. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, Elijah E. Cummings and Albert R. Wynn, have objected to the deal.
Steele said yesterday that "the American people are rightly nervous about this arrangement."
"You're going to have this new entity, this company that's foreign-owned making personnel decisions, making operational decisions that are directly impacted by security," Steele said.
In his letter to Ehrlich, O'Malley said he was pleased to read the governor's comments from a Monday news conference in which Ehrlich said he might look for a way to cancel the deal.
O'Malley sent Ehrlich a draft letter to Bush, which he signed, leaving a space for the governor to sign as well.
He wrote: "As you know, Dubai Ports World is owned by the government of one of the United Arab Emirates. We do not believe our nation's homeland security interests are served by allowing a foreign government to control port operations. And we are prepared to use every tool at our disposal to stop this deal. But your intervention could end this troubling matter immediately."
O'Malley also launched an online petition drive on the Web site of his gubernatorial campaign, martinomalley.com, to urge Bush to reverse his decision. More than 500 people signed in the first hour, according to a news release from his campaign.
Legislative leaders in Annapolis have scheduled a hearing on the port deal for today. A subcommittee that oversees the port's budget called yesterday on a former legislator who, as chairman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, helped block the sale of the energy company Unocal to the Chinese government last year.
The former delegate, Richard C. D'Amato, said the review of foreign investments in the United States "is shrouded in secrecy and incompetence." States should conduct their own review of the deal, he said.
"This committee has proved to be a doormat, a rubber stamp," he said. "We can't leave this decision in the hands of a national committee with such a lamentable history."
Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan and port director Brooks Royster III declined to answer the subcommittee's questions about the deal or the port's stevedoring contract. They said they will provide answers at today's hearing.
Del. Brian K. McHale, a Baltimore Democrat who works at the port, said that although the stevedoring company doesn't have direct control over port security, it has access to a great deal of information that could be useful to terrorists.
"A foreign government would know every piece of cargo going into each of the six major ports in the eastern U.S.," McHale said. "In our post-9/11 lives, we know almost anything can happen if you're not sure the information is secure."