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Tampa steps into port deal debate

Amid growing criticism of a deal to give a United Arab Emirates company a major presence in U.S. ports, Tampa Port Authority commissioners took a different tack Tuesday.

After a heated debate, they authorized port director Richard Wainio to sign a contract to bring the British company at the center of the controversy to Tampa to run cargo handling at the public agency's docks.

Dubai Ports World is acquiring Peninsular & Oriental Steamship Navigation Co. of London in a $6.8-billion deal due to close March 2.

P&O operates facilities at six major seaports on the East and Gulf coasts, and that has key congressional leaders worried about potential security lapses once Dubai Ports World, a state-owned business in the UAE, takes over.

President Bush told reporters Tuesday on Air Force One that the sale had been examined by the administration and was "a legitimate deal that will not jeopardize the security of the country." He pledged to veto any attempt in Congress to block it.

But pressure against the deal has been building since last week from top Republicans and Democrats. On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee pledged to introduce a bill to delay the sale of U.S. port facilities operated by P&O if the administration doesn't do it.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., joined Frist, saying the administration needed to "conduct a more thorough review." Without offering details, Hastert said in a letter to Bush that "this proposal may require additional congressional action in order to ensure that we are protecting Americans at home."

On Monday, two Republican governors - New York's George Pataki and Maryland's Robert Ehrlich Jr. - raised the possibility of legal action to void contracts at ports in New York and Baltimore.

In Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush was ambiguous Tuesday, saying his brother, the president, needed to look at the issue further. But he noted that P&O's owner is a Hong Kong-based British company, "so where do we draw the line" in questioning foreign ownership.

As it did nationally, the issue sparked sharp exchanges Tuesday at the port.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Ronda Storms said that while the UAE is an ally, news organizations have reported that some of the Sept. 11 hijackers used the nation as an operational and financial base.

"What you're being asked to do is pay no attention to the man behind the curtain," she said. "We are being encouraged to ignore possible risks and questions raised by good and diligent people."

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio pointedly asked if Storms was raising objections because Dubai Ports World is owned by Arabs.

"I think it's very important we deal with facts," she said. "Their ethnicity should not be a factor."

Storms shot back that she was concerned strictly with the political beliefs of people involved.

"They weren't Brazilians who blew up the twin towers," she said. "They weren't Chinese, they weren't Japanese. They were of a certain political persuasion. I'm sorry a member of this board turned this into a race bait(ing)."

Wainio called the deal with P&O a critical step for the port and the region. The Port Authority has invested $45-million on a terminal and cranes to jump-start its modest trade in container cargo.

The public agency is breaking up with terminal operator SSA Marine. The company didn't share the port's vision to quickly expand the business of moving goods in 20- and 40-foot steel boxes, the fastest-growing sector of cargo shipping, Wainio said.

"If we want to see our communities grow and develop economically, we have to have a modern container port," he said.

P&O will keep the same union laborers in Tampa and bring in managers from its North American operation, said Robin Dolan, vice president of business development for P&O Ports North America.

Wainio and most port commissioners said they trusted the review of the deal by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which represents 12 federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security.

The port board voted 6-1 to let Wainio sign a lease with P&O, with Storms casting the vote against. If the sale to Dubai Ports World goes through next month, port commissioners will get to vote on the issue again at their March meeting.

In a sign of how volatile the issue has become, President Bush pressed the topic again immediately upon returning to the White House to get his position on camera as well.

"This is a company that has played by the rules, has been cooperative with the United States, from a country that's an ally on the war on terror, and it would send a terrible signal to friends and allies not to let this transaction go through," the president said after emerging from his helicopter on the South Lawn.

Times staff writer Letitia Stein contributed to this report, which used information from Times wires. Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

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