Thursday January 26th, 2006

Judge considers last-minute motions before Enron trial begins...Texas officials critical of HUD hurricane recovery funding...Following Exxon Mobil refinery spill, state and Harris County officials call for faster reporting of pollution accidents...

The judge in the Houston fraud and conspiracy trial of two former Enron executives holds a hearing today and it could focus on--location. Enron founder Ken Lay and former CEO Jeff Skilling face trial on Monday. Both say they're not guilty and are asking an appellate court to move the proceedings from Houston, amid concerns about whether they can get a fair trial. U.S. District Judge Sim Lake is holding a pretrial hearing. Lake may consider the defense's last-minute request to halt the trial while Lay and Skilling appeal his latest decision keeping the case in Houston to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Texas officials are angry about the amount of money federal housing officials are providing to the state for hurricane recovery. They say the $74.5 million approved by the Department of Housing and Urban Development falls short of what the state needs. They say HUD's treating Texans like "second-class citizens.'' Republican Congressman Kevin Brady of the Woodlands represents a Southeast Texas district devastated by Hurricane Rita in September. He says he and colleagues are "stunned at HUD basically turning its back'' on Texas. Governor Rick Perry and U.S. Senators John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison joined forces today to complain and seek more federal money. Perry says Texas sought nearly $1 billion and needs the money for repairs to schools, hospitals, universities, electric grids, ports, and water and sewer lines. Hutchison says after Katrina hit, Texans opened their homes and their hearts to their neighbors in need--with the understanding the Feds would reimburse the costs. Cornyn says he's disappointed that HUD chose a methodology for allocating the money that created such an immense disparity for Texas. HUD announced it would allocate $11.5 billion Congress approved in December among five hurricane devastated states. Louisiana's to get $6.2 billion. Alabama would get 74.3 million. Florida's in line for $82.9 million, while Mississippi's in line for just over $5 billion.

State and Harris County environmental officials are calling for faster reporting of pollution accidents. The call comes as they investigate a Baytown refinery spill that showered oil onto a neighborhood. Authorities say they'll be looking into whether Irving-based Exxon Mobil violated any reporting, emissions or nuisance laws in its handling of the spill at its vast Baytown refinery. A storage tank at the refinery failed early Monday, spilling 1,400 barrels of heated process gas oil and releasing steam containing the oily material. That steam showered a public-housing complex across the street. Exxon Mobil first reported the spill to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality about 12 hours after the spill. That met the state requirement for reporting spills within 24 hours, but environmental officials say they should have been alerted sooner that the spill entered a community.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has fined Chevron Phillips Chemical $278,250 for nine air violations found during investigations in the summer of 2004, according to the Houston Business Journal. The Woodlands-based company will contribute $69,562.50 toward a project administered by the South East Texas Regional Planning Commission to improve energy efficiency for law-income West Port Arthur residents.

The privacy of cell phone users in Texas could be on the line. Attorney General Greg Abbott today announced some Web sites allegedly are offering the illegal sale of consumer cell phone records -- which are private. Abbott says using "trickery'' to obtain cell phone records amounts to nothing more than the illegal trafficking of private information. The cases could involve violations of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act. The AG says stalkers or people targeting undercover law enforcement officers might be among those seeking such personal cell phone records. Abbott is demanding information from several dozen pirate Web companies as part of the investigation. He's also urging cell phone users to contact their companies to see if anyone has requested their records.

CenterPoint Energy says it is unlikely to offer Broadband over Power Lines to consumers, although it is still evaluating the technology, according to the Houston Chronicle. Findings from a test in the Greenway Plaza area will be released next month. The technology is faster than standard broadband or DSL connections, using modems that plug into wall sockets. Marketers of BPL are largely in rural areas. TXU Electric Delivery will start installation of BPL in the Dallas-Fort Worth area later this year.

The U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce board of directors are leading a business and commerce mission to Mexico City through Saturday. The three-day mission is designed to build and strengthen cross-border partnerships. The mission includes a delegation from the Texas Association of Mexican American Chambers of Commerce and the McAllen Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The schedule includes meetings with Mexico's presidential candidates, as well as Mexico Finance Secretary Francisco Gil Diaz.

The Houston Technology Center has been hosting a two-day Energy Technology Venture Capital Conference at the Marriott Westchase Hotel. A select group of growing energy technology firms assembled before an investor audience of venture capitalists, private equity and corporate investors. The conference is a platform for investors and energy companies to examine emerging technologies.

Two Washington-based think tanks released a study today that shows the income gap between rich and middle class families is wider in Texas than in any other state. The study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute found the gap between rich and poor families is the second-widest in the nation. In the early 2000s, the average income of the richest 20 percent of Texas families was almost $119,000--almost three times the average income of the middle 20 percent of families. The richest 20 percent of Texas families made just over eight times as much as the poorest 20 percent of families, who averaged $14,724 a year. Nationally, the average income of the richest families was more than $122,000. That's more than two-and-a-half times higher than the average of families in the middle and more than seven times higher than the average income of the poorest families. The study also found that in Texas and nationwide, the incomes of the richest families climbed substantially over the past two decades, while less wealthy families saw only modest gains.

A new study by a Washington think tank suggests that active duty is no longer a losing proposition for most reservists. Rand's National Defense Research Institute took a look at what reservists were paid in civilian life and what they earned while on active duty. More than a-quarter made less but 72 percent made more, in some case, a lot more. Average pay for reservists on combat duty tops $56,000 a year. A number of factors are responsible, including combat pay, higher base salaries, family separation allowances and the fact that the income is tax-free. A Rand economist says the survey doesn't mean to imply that reserve pay is adequate, noting that the troops are still separated from their families, living in tents and getting shot at.

In a positive sign for manufacturing, the Commerce Department says durable goods orders rose 1.3 percent in December. It's the third straight monthly increase, reflecting rising demand for military aircraft, machinery and automobiles. Excluding transportation, orders were up nine-tenths of one percent. For all of 2005, orders were up more than eight percent to a record $2.5 trillion.

The job market remains firm, according to the latest snapshot from the government. There's word that the number of Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits rose by 11,000 last week. The Labor Department says the total stood at 283,000. Analysts had been looking for a bigger increase in claims. The less-volatile four-week moving average dipped to just below 289,000, the lowest level since July 2000.

Mortgage rates have risen over the past week. Freddie Mac says the average for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages is at 6.12 percent. That's up from 6.1 percent last week. The average for 15-year fixed-rate mortgages is 5.70 percent, compared to 5.67 percent last week. Up also is the average for one-year adjustable-rate mortgages. It stands at 5.20 percent, up from 5.18 percent last week. The averages do not include fees and points which add to the cost of financing a home purchase. Freddie Mac chief economist Frank Nothaft says the rise likely reflects expectations that the Federal Reserve will hike short-term rates again when it meets next week.

The House of Blues has selected Houston as the site for its 11th location. The live concert hall, restaurant and bar will be part of the Houston Pavilions development in downtown Houston, planned in an area bounded by Dallas, Polk, Main and Caroline. The House of Blues plans to break ground in May at Caroline and Dallas and is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2007. The Houston Pavilions will also include an 11-story office tower, retail/entertainment space and 140 condominiums.

The 700 tons of U.S. beef distributed in Japan after the country eased its import ban last month is safe and can be eaten with no worries. Those are the assurances today from Japan's agriculture minister. Shoichi Nakagawa told Parliament the meat was closely checked for banned material--such as bone and brain--when it entered the country. Japan halted imports again last week after it found banned spinal bones in a shipment of American veal. Nakagawa says about 1,500 tons of U.S. beef has entered Japan since the easing of a two-year-old ban on December 12th--of which the 700 tons had already been sent to retailers. The ban was imposed in 2003 after the discovery of mad cow disease in an American herd. Also today, another Japanese agriculture official said Japan is considering limiting U.S. beef imports from about ten plants Japanese officials have inspected. Tokyo sent inspectors to 11 facilities in Texas and four other states in December, days after announcing the easing of an import ban.

A San Antonio wholesale meat distributor has been fined 40,000 for mislabeling frozen chicken. Authorities say A.J. Hausman and his company, Almacenes de Tejas, placed Alabama labels on chicken produced in Texas to circumvent a 2002 Mexican ban on Texas chicken. A federal judge yesterday also sentenced Hausman and the company, which does business at ADT, to three years probation. Hausman had pleaded guilty to four misdemeanor charges of violating the Federal Poultry Products Protection Act. In 2002, Mexico banned chicken from Texas after some chickens raised in the state tested positive for exotic Newcastle disease, a type of bird flu. The 35,000 pounds of mislabeled chicken were destroyed after federal investigators uncovered the improper labeling. Hausman's lawyer says the chicken was fit for consumption by anybody.

AT&T today reported fourth-quarter net income that beat Wall Street expectations, reflecting growth in wireless, broadband and business services. The San Antonio-based telecom formerly called SBC Communications says it earned $1.66 billion for the quarter ended December 31st. Total operating revenue during the quarter was almost $13 billion. SBC completed the purchase of AT&T on November 18th, and the latest quarterly results combine the two companies' operations after that date. Year-earlier figures include only SBC's operations. AT&T owns 60 percent of Atlanta-based Cingular Wireless, with Atlanta-based BellSouth owning the rest.

Lyondell Chemical today posted sharply higher fourth-quarter profits today. The Houston-based petrochemical company says its earnings were boosted by results at its ethylene and propylene oxide units, coupled with full-year ownership of Millennium Chemicals. Lyondell also notes its results for the quarter include the operations of Equistar and Millennium. Before December, Lyondell's 70.5 percent interest in Equistar was recorded as an equity investment. In addition, the company said it expects 2006 results will exceed 2005's. Lyondell reported fourth-quarter net income of $141 million. That's almost nine times the earnings from the previous fourth quarter. The latest results include $53 million in one-time charges--including $24 million from the shutdown of a plant in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Revenue almost doubled to $5 billion--beating Wall Street estimates.

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