Monday January 2nd, 2006

Causey plea bargain unlikely to deter Lay from "idiot defense"...Europe feels pinch as Russians stop selling natural gas to Ukraine...Six Flags AstroWorld to hold public auction this weekend...

Last Wednesday's plea bargain by co-defendant Richard Causey, a former top Enron accountant, will not deter former Enron chief Ken Lay from testifying that he knew nothing about crimes committed at the energy company. The trial, which is expected to last four to six months, opens January 30th in Houston. Lay and former CEO Jeff Skilling maintain their innocence. In public appearances, Lay concedes only that he erred in trusting Andrew Fastow, the ex-Enron chief financial officer who is also cooperating with the government against him. The government must prove decisively that Lay knew what was going on in the months leading up to Enron's collapse. Skilling faces 35 counts of fraud, conspiracy, insider trading and lying to auditors. A judge rejected Skilling's request to dismiss insider trading charges pending against him in a court opinion last week. Lay faces seven counts of fraud and conspiracy. Causey agreed to serve seven years in prison, which prosecutors could recommend be reduced to five if they are pleased with his cooperation.


The natural gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine is having an impact on the rest of Europe. France, Austria and other Western European nations say they've seen a drop of as much as 40 percent of their normal pipeline supplies today. Most of the natural gas pipelines run through Ukraine. Russia's state-owned gas monopoly says Ukraine has diverted about $25 million worth of the gas, a day after Russia stopped selling to Ukraine in a price dispute. Ukraine is refusing to agree to a quadrupling of the price imposed by the Russian company. Kiev is calling for a resumption of negotiations with the inclusion of international experts.


Hurricane Katrina evacuees around the nation who faced a January 7th deadline for checking out of their government-funded hotel rooms have received a reprieve. Federal officials will keep paying for the rooms beyond that date. Officials are ironing out issues arising from a class-action lawsuit. One issue: the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which inherited the program from the American Red Cross, still does not have up-to-date records on the identities of evacuees in the hotel program or where they are staying. That's according to court papers filed last week by government lawyers.


Six Flags AstroWorld is holding a public auction this Friday through Sunday. Cash and approved credit cards are being accepted, with full payment required on the day of sale. A ten percent buyer's premium will be added to the hammer price. Friday's auction includes machinery, tools, electronics and landscaping, merchandising and food service equipment. Saturday's auction includes golf carts, vehicles and heavy equipment. At noon, amusement rides will be auctioned, including Greezed Lightnin', XLR-8, Viper, Mayan Mindbender, Looping Starship, Barnstormer, as well as water slides, soft play children's attractions and steam and land locomotives. Sunday's auction includes signage and memorabilia and collectibles. The park closed in October.


The 2006 Houston International Boat, Sport & Travel Show is set for ten days during the week of January 6th through the 15th at Reliant Center. Over five football fields of exhibits will feature sailboats, yachts and powerboats, as well as campers, RV accessories and services, travel trailers and camping equipment.


A free model railroad exhibition is set for Saturday and Sunday at the George R. Brown Center, featuring thousands of square feet of operating model railroads, merchandising and displays. The exhibition is sponsored by the Model Railroad Industry Association and the World's Greatest Hobby Program.


The U.S. airline industry is coming off an up-and-down 2005 that saw two major carriers file for bankruptcy--but others begin to pull out of a nosedive that began in 2001. Losses at the biggest U.S. airlines since the 2001 economic downturn were expected to approach $30 billion. Still, 2005 was nearly a good year. Some companies, including the Fort Worth-based parent of American Airlines, could have turned a profit if fuel prices hadn't shot so high. As it turned out, some airlines narrowed their losses by sharply cutting costs other than fuel--including wringing wage concessions out of their workers. Some analysts think 2006 will be a pivotal year. Michael Linenberg of Merrill Lynch says fewer planes flying, rising fares and lower fuel prices could lift the stock of airlines. Dallas-based Southwest Airlines is the only carrier to be consistently profitable throughout the current slump. Its CEO, Gary Kelly, agrees that trends are looking up. Analysts predict five other carriers also will earn a profit in 2006. They are American parent AMR Corporation, Houston-based Continental Airlines, as well as Jetblue Airways, Alaska Air Group and Air Tran Holdings.

Continental Airlines plans to reduce by 69 the number of aircraft ExpressJet will operate for them beginning in January 2007 and completed by the summer of 2007. ExpressJet has nine months to decide whether to retain the aircraft or return them to Continental. Continental is requesting proposals from other regional carriers to replace the service for them beginning in January 2007.

Continental has implemented eTicket capability with 33 carriers worldwide, and expects to add 24 more interline eTicket partners in the first half of 2006. Interline eTickets permit customers to fly and check baggage on Continental and other carriers on a single paperless eTicket itinerary.

About 100 Southwest Airlines executives and other employees are at Denver International Airport to put the final touches on the airline's plans to end a 20-year absence in Denver. Southwest will offer 13 daily nonstop flights to Chicago's Midway Airport, Las Vegas and Phoenix. Southwest's first passenger flights from Denver International Airport are scheduled tomorrow. The Dallas-based carrier left Denver in 1986 because of high costs associated with landing fees, leases and other items. Those fees have come down, prompting the airline to start service at DIA, where it goes head-to-head against United Airlines and Frontier Airlines. Together, Frontier and United handle 75 percent of passenger traffic at the Denver airport. Initially, Southwest will have two gates at the Denver airport, where it expects to employ about 40 people.


Officials warn that motorists in Mexico and Central America could unknowingly end up buying cars damaged by hurricanes that struck the Gulf Coast and East Texas. Steve Ahlenius is the president and CEO of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce. He says he wouldn't be surprised if cars flooded in Louisiana and Southeast Texas end up in Mexico. Each day, more than 100 cars wait at the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge and Los Indios Bridge in Harlingen to be processed for shipment through Mexico into Central America. They include unlicensed and untaxed vehicles that economic officials call coches chocolates. That's because like a box of chocolates, buyers don't know what they're getting. A trade publication for the collision repair industry says about half a million used cars are illegally imported into Mexico each year. The car-tracking Web site Carfax estimates between a quarter and a half million vehicles could have been damaged by flood waters generated by Hurricane Katrina.


Houston Transtar recently announced the expansion of its Real-Time Traffic map, including 20.8 directional miles on the Westpark Tollway and 73.6 directional miles on the Sam Houston Tollway South and East. The new Westpark Tollway coverage uses ten new monitoring stations and extends from State Highway 6 to South Rice Avenue. The new Sam Houston Tollway coverage extends from US 59 south and east to Interstate Highway 10 using 12 new monitoring stations. The expansion brings the total directional miles monitored close to 690 and total number of monitoring locations to 300. The Houston Transtar traffic monitoring system measures travel speeds on Houston area freeways and HOV lanes by using toll tag reader stations and over 1.5 million toll tags.


AT&T has unveiled the largest advertising campaign in its 128-year history--"Your world. Delivered." The year-long campaign will bring home the fact that two companies have come together and is expected to strengthen one of the most recognized names in communications.

Verizon Wireless says it completed more than $290 million in enhancements to its Texas voice and data wireless network in 2005, including adding and updating cell sites and other technology to improve quality and coverage, as well as expanding wireless broadband computing, text and video messaging capabilities. Verizon upgraded more than 460 cell sites in Houston, Dallas, fort Worth, San Antonio, Austin and Beaumont.


Houston-based BPZ Energy has signed a 24-month drilling contract with Petrex in northwest Peru, according to the Houston business Journal. Petrex is the South American subsidiary of Saipem of Italy. Drilling begins in June.


Three investors are opening ten El Taco Tote restaurants in Houston over the next five years, according to the Houston Business Journal. The first one recently opened on Interstate 45 North, and two others are scheduled to open this year on Westheimer and along I-45 South. There are seven El Taco Tote locations in Mexico and ten in the United States, in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.


A new helicopter repair and maintenance facility planned for a shuttered Navy air station is expected to bring about 300 jobs to the coastal town of Beeville. The Bee Development Authority on Friday leased two hangars at Chase Field Industrial Park to Chicago-based military subcontractor Kay and Associates. Beeville Authority President Laura Fischer says the group spent close to $3 million repairing hangars and runways at the industrial park. The industrial park was formerly Chase Field Naval Air Station, which was closed by the Department of Defense in 1993. Fischer says that Kay has a contract with the Department of Defense to repair helicopters and has a one-year lease with four one-year options.


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