Port Authority not deterred by controversy

The Tampa Port Authority gave the green light Tuesday to sign a contract with the British company at the center of the controversy over its sale to a business based in the United Arab Emirates based on concerns it may threaten U.S. homeland security.

Published February 21, 2006

TAMPA - 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.

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 handing at the public agency's docks.

Dubai Ports World is acquiring London-based Peninsular & Oriental Steamship Navigation Co., 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, a state-owned business in the United Arab Emirates, takes over.

President Bush said Tuesday that the sale had been extensively 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.

As it did nationally, the issue sparked sharp exchanges Tuesday at Tampa's 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 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.