Monday May 8th, 2006

Enron trial recesses until next Monday...Venezuela plans new oil tax...Dell setting up technology and development center in Malaysia...

Testimony has come to an end in the fraud and conspiracy trial of Enron founder Ken Lay and former CEO Jeff Skilling. The move comes after 15 weeks of testimony in a trial stemming from one of the biggest corporate scandals in U.S. history. Attorneys on both sides reduced their remaining witness lineups. Still, a dozen hours of closing arguments remain scheduled to start next Monday, May 15th, when the trial resumes. U.S. District Judge Sim Lake gave jurors the rest of this week off while attorneys work on their final comments to the panel. The defense had been expected to call five witnesses, but ditched two experts and rested their case. Defense attorney Mike Ramsey, who has missed several weeks of court to undergo heart procedures, was back in court this morning. He said he will participate in closing arguments.

"Yes, I will. Now, it won't be a lengthy argument. I'm not really up to that physically, yet, but I will participate fully in the argument, in particular on this issues having to do with the law of the case. I thin k the case ended on sort of a whimper. We were told there were going to be 14 rebuttal witnesses and we ended up with three. I don't know why that happened, but it did happen. I'm glad the case is over with. It is time to get to the jury--I think the jury's anxious to to decide the case--and we're going to be arguing and waving our arms next week."

The government followed up with rebuttal witnesses, also cut from last week's estimate, ending testimony at least a day earlier than expected. They offered testimony about the effects of the Enron bankruptcy on retirement funds, Ken Lay's stock sales and ethical problems presented by Lay and Jeff Skilling's investment in Photofete, which had an Enron contract. Defense attorney Daniel Petrocelli said the government had an advantage in calling witnesses.

"There were many members of enron's senior management, many people, very important information that would have exonerated fully all of the positions that Mr. Skilling has been taking in this case. People like Lou Pai, people like Greg Whalley, people like Rich Buy, people like Janet Dietrich, and I could go on. They should have been here. A trial is supposed to be a place where the truth can be found. We wanted these people to come and testify. The government would not allow that to happen."

Petrocelli said that's the only thing he would change about the trial.

"That's my only regret in this trial, that the government had the ability to bring all these witnesses into court. We did not have that ability. And had they done so we would have heard from Lou Pai and Greg Whalley and Rick Buy and Janet Dietrich and Jeff McMahon and others. But they could not come, they (the government) refused to waive their rights to come and testify and the defense is powerless to bring them to court."

Deliberations are to begin May 17th. Lay will then go on trial before Lake without a jury the next day. He'll be tried on four counts of bank fraud and making false statements to banks in a separate case regarding his personal banking. Judge Lake will not announce his verdict in the bench trial until after the jury's verdict has been returned. The trial has taken 53 days of the court's time so far. Twenty-two government witnesses testified, followed by 31 defense witnesses, including Lay and Skilling.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is targeting foreign oil companies again--this time, it's with a new tax eyeing lucrative projects in the oil-rich Orinoco River Basin. The measure announced suddenly over the weekend comes shortly after Chavez's close ally, Bolivian President Evo Morales, nationalized his country's natural gas sector. It also comes as both governments increasingly seek a larger share of soaring energy prices. Chavez said yesterday that a new 33-and-a-third percent tax on extraction would be applied to all oil operations in the country. Venezuelan Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez says companies will be allowed to deduct what they pay in royalties from that new tax. The tax will target such companies as BP; Irving, Texas-based Exxon Mobil; Chevron; France's Total; Norway's Statoil; and Houston-based ConocoPhillips. It'll mean their 16-point-six percent royalty tax will double.

Malaysian news media report that Dell will set up a technology and development center in Malaysia's high-tech city of Vyberjaya. Dell announced the decision during a Friday visit to Dell's Round Rock headquarters by Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. The Malaysian National News Agency Bernama says Abdullah met with Dell founder and Chairman Michael Dell and Chief Executive Kevin Rollins.

Dell said today it expects to buy $12 billion worth of goods from Taiwan suppliers this year. That's a 20 percent increase from the Round Rock-based computer giant's Taiwanese purchases last year. Dell CEO Kevin Rollins says global product development and expanding sales are behind the increase. Rollins says Taiwan companies have played a strategic role in expanding Dell's business since it entered the Asia-Pacific region in the early 1990s. He says he expects to see "healthy growth'' in the global PC market in 2006.

A housing slowdown that's gripped some high-growth markets during the past few quarters--appears to be spreading. Preliminary reports from builders Hovnanian Enterprises and Toll Brothers indicate demand is falling faster and more sharply than previously thought. Majestic Research analyst John Tomlinson found sales fell year over year in every market during February and March, with the average decline being 25 percent. Even markets that hadn't been weak previously--such as Philadelphia, Dallas, and Las Vegas--softened in the quarter. Sales fell 15 percent in Dallas. Tomlinson says rising inventory, slowing sales and bigger incentive packages all signal a correction in the housing industry.

A Texas company has tackled the job to replace the Hurricane Katrina-damaged Superdome roof. Katrina hit the Gulf Coast last August--swamping New Orleans. Tom Keller and Wally Scoggins own Brazos Urethane of Texas City. Their workers must go up 27 stories to get to the Superdome Roof. The crews must take an elevator to the sixth level of the Dome. To cover the last 21 stories, the workers climb stairs and catwalks behind the acoustic ceiling. Workers go up in the morning, and unless a storm blows in, they don't come down until eight hours later. The stadium is home to the NFL's New Orleans Saints and the Sugar Bowl. The Saints temporarily relocated to San Antonio after Katrina. Their first game in New Orleans is September 25th. The cost to repair the roof has been put at $32 million.

The nation's business economists believe growth may slow some later this year but the economy will withstand the hits of higher oil and gasoline prices and interest rate increases. A forecasting panel of the National Association for Business Economics projects that economic growth will average 3.1 percent for the next seven quarters. The economy grew at an annual rate of 4.8 percent in the first three months of this year. The panel is also looking for the core rate of the Consumer Price Index, which excludes food and energy, to run at about 2.3 percent. And they expect the Fed will raise interest rates just one more time this year, to five percent, perhaps on Wednesday.

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