Wednesday June 28th, 2006

British bankers wanted on Enron-related fraud charges asking for bail...Refinery shortage discussed at U.S.-Arab Economic Forum...Duke Energy's Houston trading operations to be acquired by Belgian firm in $415 million deal...

Three British bankers ordered extradited to the United States on Enron-related fraud charges say they're asking to be allowed to return to Britain on bail. The three say they're in talks with U.S. authorities about the possibility. David Bermingham, Giles Darby and Gary Mulgrew say access to documents and witnesses in Britain was crucial to preparing a defense for a trial in Houston. The three men lost a last-ditch appeal to the European Court of Human Rights against British court rulings that they be extradited for trial. The three are charged in Houston with bilking their former employer, National Westminster Bank, out of more than $7 million. Each faces seven counts of wire fraud. They allegedly advised NatWest in 2000 to sell part of an Enron business for less than the stake was worth. It was allegedly part of a scheme devised with former Enron finance chief Andy Fastow and managing director Michael Kopper. The bankers deny the fraud charges.

The outgoing director-general of the Confederation of British Industry is urging British Prime Minister Tony Blair to intervene and cancel the extradition to the United States of the three former NatWest bankers accused of Enron-related fraud charges. Sir Digby Jones says there is no prima facie case against the three, telling CNN the men should be on bail, and not imprisoned for up to two years while a case is compiled against them. Great Britain has a fast-track extradition treaty with the U.S. as part of the war against terrorism. British business leaders and human rights activists accuse the U.S. government of using the treaty as a way to target white-collar crime. Under the January 2004 treaty, the United States can demand extradition without having to show there is a case to answer based on available evidence, although Britain must prove its case in a U.S. court to extradite U.S. citizens to the UK. One of the bankers says he may have to sell his house to cover legal costs, facing extradition in a matter of days. A lawyer for one of the bankers says negotiations are underway with U.S. authorities for the three to turn up in Houston voluntarily.


More than 350,000 barrels of Saudi Arabian heavy crude oil have been lifted from the ground but cannot be sold because there's not enough refining capacity to turn it into gasoline or diesel, according to the kingdom's ambassador to the United States. Turki al-Faisal addressed the U.S.-Arab Economic Forum at the George R. Brown Convention Center and Hilton Americas-Downtown, which has been addressing topics ranging from breaking the oil addiction to repairing the U.S.-Arab relationship. Business between Houston and the Arab world includes oil and drilling and refinery equipment. Baker-Hughes chairman and CEO Chad Deaton told the conference there are several things his company looks for when it considers foreign investment.

"But number one, we'd like to negotiate contracts that are enforceable under rule of law in that host country--something that we can know that we can protect our assets. We want to be able to make sure that we can provide a working environment that meets the highest standards in health, safety and environment. Employee security--well, you can't say enough about that. It's paramount. Very importantly, we want to be able to recruit and train a stable and well-educated local workforce of technicians and scientists and engineers and economists and other such professionals and support people and be able to offer them an opportunity for advancement, whether it's in the Middle East, or elsewhere in the world. We want to be able to build manufacturing facilities and research and development facilities. We also have to feel comfortable that our IP--our intellectual property--that we develop in the area is secure."

The convention has heard from the CEOs of several oil companies interested in business relationships in the Arab world. ConocoPhillips and Marathon Oil plan to return to Libya after the 20-year ban imposed after the 1988 terrorist attack on PanAm flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.


Duke Energy's Houston trading operations are being acquired by Fortis, Belgium's largest financial services firm in a $415 million deal. Fortis says there are no plans to cut any of the 200 jobs in the trading offices in Houston or 25 jobs in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. The Houston office, Cinergy Marketing and Trading, trades in nearly all North American power and natural gas markets from its downtown offices on Louisiana. Duke announced plans to sell its trading operation in May, shortly after completing its $9 billion merger with Cincinnati-based Cinergy. The company closed its own trading shop last year, but acquired CMT with the Cinergy merger.


Houston-based U.S. Concrete is acquiring Alberta Investments and Alliance Haulers in a $165 million stock purchase deal, according to the Houston Business Journal. Alberta Investments owns the Redi-Mix and Ingram Enterprises subsidiaries and operates 13 ready-mixed concrete plants in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Alliance Haulers provides cement and aggregates hauling services with a fleet of 260 trucks.


Apache Corporation is selling its 24.5 percent interest in China's Zhau Dong offshore block to ROC Oil in Australia in a $260 million deal. Apache says the assets are not strategic to Apache's international portfolio, which includes properties in the North Sea, Egypt, Australia, Canada and the United States.


Houston-based Consolidated Graphics is acquiring Global Group of Fort Worth for an undisclosed sum, according to the Houston Business Journal. Global Group is a printing and technology firm offering sheet-fed, web and digital printing services, as well as direct mail, creative design, desktop publishing and other services.


The first deepwater drilling contract for offshore Ukraine has been awarded by Vanco International to Atwood Oceanics Pacific Limited for use of the Atwood Southern Cross semi-submersible drilling unit. The rig will be set up in the Black Sea offshore Crimea between August 2007 and January 2008. Vanco currently is active offshore Morocco, Cote de'Ivoire, Ghana, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Madagascar.


A group of prominent black activists--including the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton--have announced a boycott of BP. They say the British oil company gouges prices and racially discriminates in its business practices. Jackson says BP's targeted because none of its upper-level executives are black and there are no black owners among its hundreds of U.S. distributors. BP spokesman Scott Dean defended the company's diversity, saying 15 percent of BP's U.S. employees are black and account for almost ten percent of its senior officials. The black clergy group meeting in Dallas also says its hopes to unite 10,000 black churches to work on a social justice agenda. Jackson says church leaders have paid a lot of attention to gay marriage. But he notes they haven't put a similar focus "on raising the minimum wage for working poor people and adequately funding America's education system.'' An official of the National Association of Evangelicals says stereotypes shouldn't be used to cause division.


The Port of Houston Authority Commission will receive bids for deregulated electric power for PHA facilities for up to three years at an estimated cost of $3.75 million per year. The current contract from the Texas Land Office expires September 30th. The commission also approved a contract not to exceed $9.9 million for six diesel electric container yard cranes for the Bayport terminal.


Northwest Airways and jetBlue Airways are objecting to a deal before Congress that would reduce the size of Dallas Love Field. The plan would eventually allow long-haul commercial passenger flights from the Dallas airport in exchange for the reduction. But Northwest and jetBlue say the deal would lock new competitors out of Love Field. JetBlue had announced yesterday it would operate flights to Houston Hobby Airport. It says it's interested in serving Love Field--but not nearby Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Executives of the airline said they plan to fight the Texas deal in Congress and will complain to the Federal Aviation Administration. Before the deal was reached, Dallas-based southwest lobbied congress to repeal a federal 1979 law called the Wright amendment. The law limits flights to and from Love Field to Texas and nearby states.


Continental Airlines is expanding its codesharing with Alitalia for passengers transferring between the two carriers traveling between Italy and Canada and Mexico. The two carriers currently codeshare on flights between the U.S. and Italy. Codesharing improves airline service by simplifying the booking process with electronic ticketing and communication of itinerary information between airlines. Travelers are able to have single check-in for all flights, including the issuance of boarding passes and checked baggage to their final destination.


The Federal Flood Insurance Program, still reeling from last year's hurricanes, may get a helping hand from Congress. The House has voted overwhelmingly to phase out subsidies on some vacation homes and commercial property and raise premiums at a faster rate. The bill also increases the amount of coverage a property owner can buy and boosts fines for mortgage lenders who don't tell customers they have to buy flood insurance. The National Flood Insurance Program was established by Congress in 1968 to help homeowners, particularly those in flood plains, obtain flood insurance that private insurers were unwilling to offer. Under the program, private insurers sell the government-subsidized policies. The program was self-supporting for its first 37 years, but last year it was jolted by claims totaling $22 billion following Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and others.


Things are heating up this summer in the dining-out business. The National Restaurant Association expects the nation's 925,000 eateries will hire nearly 410,000 workers this summer, pushing employment 4.5 percent above its March level. The industry representative says the most jobs will be added in New York, California, Illinois, Massachusetts and New Jersey. Two states, however, Florida and Arizona, will see employment declines because their busiest seasons for travel and tourism are not in the summer months. The restaurant industry is the nation's largest private-sector employer and the second largest creator of summer jobs--ranking behind the construction industry.


Consumers wanting to ditch old printers, personal computers or other electronics gear made by Dell will soon be able to recycle them--for free. The announcement came today from company chairman Michael Dell. Dell told reporters--in a conference call--that he doesn't think the consumer should have to pay for the responsible retirement of used computer equipment. The new Dell recycling policy, already available in Europe, is slated to launch in the U.S. by September and the rest of the world by November. Under Round Rock-based Dell's previous policy, consumers could only get free recycling of any brand of computer or printer--if they bought a new Dell system. Consumers wishing to recycle their gear will have to go online and enter the Dell product serial code, pack the item and then schedule a pickup time. Consumers must erase any personal data.

Dell is launching a service plan that uses mapping technology from Google. Round Rock-based Dell says the service is dubbed "Platinum Plus.'' It will let Dell customers use the 3D mapping program Google Earth Pro to see in real-time how the company is responding to technical support issues around the globe. Dell Services Vice President Steve Meyer says the idea is to make it simpler and easier for medium to large businesses using Dell to maintain their systems. Instead of having to make a telephone call for an update, customers can now quickly see the status of open service dispatches on a computer screen. The tracking ability is the most recent in a string of deals involving Google.


A group called Save Fry Street is calling for the preservation of a historic neighborhood that helps create the college experience at the University of North Texas. Some of the buildings date to the 1920s, and UNT alumni like Don Henley and Nora Jones are no strangers to Fry Street. A developer from a Houston suburb bought up most of the property along Fry Street. Word spread that he's considering tearing down many of the buildings and replacing them with upscale businesses. The Save Fry Street group says it has collected more than 2,500 signatures. Some people, however, say they are not opposed to bulldozing some of the buildings for a safer and cleaner street. The developer, Buster Freedman, is on record as saying he doesn't know exactly what he wants to do with the Fry Street area.


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