Friday March 10th, 2006

Gasoline prices climb...Port of Houston requests federal funding for additional customs officers...Andy Fastow to continue cross examination at Enron trial after weekend break...

Retail gasoline prices soared in Texas this week. The AAA Texas gas price survey shows the average retail price of regular, self-serve unleaded gas averaged $2.27 per gallon. That's up 12 cents per gallon from last week. Regular-grade averaged $2.35 per gallon nationwide--up nine cents from last week. But an auto club spokeswoman says the price jump may be short-lived. The biggest increases were seen in Corpus Christi, where the average retail price jumped almost 18 cents to $2.23 per gallon. But the most expensive gas was found in Fort Worth, where regular-grade averaged $2.28 per gallon--14 cents more than last week. The cheapest gas was in San Antonio, where it averaged $2.22 per gallon. That's 11 cents more than last week. Auto club spokeswoman Rose Rougeau says the seasonal production switch from winter- to summer-grade gasoline usually causes a price spike like this week's. But she says the increases could be brief with crude oil trading lower and government reports showing crude oil inventories at their highest levels since 1999. Also, OPEC has said it won't reduce production quotas.


Port of Houston officials say they need an additional 125 to 150 customs officers to make sure all incoming containers are inspected. Port officials traveled to Washington this week to request more funding for security. Jim Edmonds is the chairman of the Port of Houston Authority Commission. He estimates that 15 to 20 percent of cargo containers moving through the Port of Houston undergo physical inspection. Edmonds says many of the inspectors assigned to the Houston port also work part of the day at Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport. He says they are overloaded, in terms of manpower. A Customs and Border Protection spokesman says the department has stepped up security since September 11th. Port officials say members of the Houston-area Congressional delegation promised to sign a letter supporting the request for more customs officers.


When the Enron trial resumes Monday, the star government witness, former chief financial officer Andrew Fastow, will be undergoing more cross-examination. His former bosses, Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay, are charged with fraud and conspiracy in the company's spectacular fall. Yesterday, Fastow said he discussed improper deals with Skilling but admitted he has no proof of the meetings. He said jurors will just have to take his word for it. Defense attorney Daniel Petrocelli says he hopes the jury paid attention to what Fastow has actually said on the stand.

"Well, I don't want to comment too directly because the witness is still on the stand, but you can, you can say that we did not disagree with with some of the things he had to say on direct examination, but on closer examination of what he actually did say, in my view he wasn't saying all that much."

Petrocelli has been working to distance Skilling from the criminal acts confessed by Fastow.

"Mr. Fastow has acknowledged committing acts of wrongdoing, and those acts had nothing to do with Mr. Skilling. Those acts were concealed from Mr. Skilling, and what we wanted to make real clear to the jury--that Mr. Skilling is completely free from any association from whatever things Mr. Fastow decided to do."

Fastow has pleaded guilty to scamming the company for millions while orchestrating schemes to hide debt and inflate profits. Enron founder Lay resumed his role as CEO after Skilling's abrupt departure and faces seven counts of fraud and conspiracy.


A majority of corporate leaders lack a high degree of confidence in their company's capabilities in risk management, according to the Protiviti U.S. Risk Barometer, according to the group's Jim DeLoach.

"Thirty-eight percent of these senior executives report that their organizations are very effective at managing risk. that suggests that only four of ten senior executives have high confidence that their risk management practices are identifying and managing all potentially significant business risk."

The corporate focus on risk management has changed because of information technology advances, legal and regulatory issues and governance reforms such as Sarbanes Oxley.

"IT was really at the top of the radar screen. Forty-five percent of these senior executives indicated that information systems and IT security were seen as potential areas of vulnerability. Forty-nine percent ranked customer satisfaction--potential issues around customer service--as a significant risk, so IT and customer satisfaction were right at the top."

DeLoach says the study suggests that most companies are taking steps to improve risk management.

"Sixty-five percent of companies are planning to implement significant or moderate changes in their risk management capabilities over the next two years does indicate, Ed, that risk management is clearly on the radar of America's largest companies."

Companies indicate they plan to implement better technology and hire more qualified staff.


Federal emergency managers have approved almost $26 million in grants to reimburse Texas for hurricane-related costs. Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison announced the grants today in Washington. She says the money will--in her words--"provide significant support for Texas communities that were severely affected by Hurricane Rita.'' She says the grants also will help Texas school districts educate thousands of students displaced by Hurricane Katrina. A $15 million grant goes to reimburse the Jasper-Newton Electric Co-Op for repairs to damage caused by Hurricane Rita. A $3.9 million grant will reimburse Deep East Texas Electric Co-Op for similar Rita-related repairs to its system. Tyler County will get $5.7 million to reimburse costs from clearing and disposal of storm debris. That's on top of almost $18 million in reimbursement already approved for Tyler County. The Texas Education Agency gets a $1.1 million grant to pay to educating more than 1,200 Hurricane Katrina evacuees in the Spring School District, near Houston.


The Labor Department says employers added 243,000 jobs to their payrolls last month. That's the best showing in three months. At the same time, more people went looking for work, and that helped push the unemployment rate up just a tick to 4.8 percent in February. The construction, retail and financial services trades were among those enjoying employment gains, helping to make up for further losses in manufacturing. The stronger jobs creation marked an increase from the 170,000 which had been added in January, a revised number.


Baker Hughes in Houston says the number of rigs actively exploring for oil and natural gas in the U.S. this week rose by one--to reach 1,532. One year ago the rig count was 1,282. Texas gained eight rigs this week.


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