Monday July 17th, 2006

Houston real estate market continues record-setting pace...Sugar Land, League City and The Woodlands place on Money magazine's "Best Places to Live" list...Skilling defense attorney outlines possible appeals points...

Houston's real estate market continues its record-setting pace, with average sales prices and median sales prices for single-family homes hitting all-time highs in June for the second month in a row. The Houston Association of Realtors Multiple Listing Service reports the median price reached $156,000 last month--a 7.2 percent increase over May. The average home price in June reached $213,634, topping May's record of $200,000. Houston's current median price is 32.1 percent less than the national median price. This is the 29th consecutive month that sales have been higher than the same month the previous year. Single family home sales increased by 13.4 percent to 7,588, with properties sold during the month reaching nearly $1.9 billion.

Apartment construction activity in the Houston area has picked up again, according to O'Connor & Associates, with ten projects with 3,454 units already completed so far this year. An additional 28 projects containing 11,795 units are underway. Houston's Far West is bringing the most units to the apartment market, and there is activity in the Inner West Loop, The Woodlands and Midtown. O'Connor says aggressive development and further Katrina evacuee vacancies could contribute to the softness of the Houston apartment market in the coming months.


Sugar Land is third on Money magazine's new list of "Best Places to Live" in America. The publication says Fort Collins, Colorado tops the list for 2006, citing the area's natural setting, vibrant downtown and the presence of Colorado State University. The August edition ranks Fort Collins as number one among 745 places with populations greater than 50,000. Nine Texas cities are cited, including League City at 65 and The Woodlands at 73. Plano placed at 11, Richardson at 15, Carrollton at 19, Denton at 58 and North Richland Hills at 62. Cities are ranked on a series of factors, including cost of living, employment markets, median income, property taxes and housing prices. Crime, congestion, public schools and climate also go into the mix.


The death of Ken Lay presents legal problems for the Enron Task Force in trying to seize some $7.8 million of Lay's assets for Enron's creditors. But it also raises questions about the conviction of co-defendant Jeff Skilling. Skilling was convicted on 19 of 28 counts of fraud, conspiracy, insider trading and lying to auditors, but defense attorney Daniel Petrocelli says the government's insistence that he and Lay be tried together open new grounds for appeal. Petrocelli told CNN's Larry King that now that Lay's case has effectively been vacated, there may be serious questions about the effect on Skilling's case. He says Skilling's appeal may focus on the failure of the prosecution to call Enron's former chief accounting officer, Richard Causey. It may also center on U.S. District Judge Sim Lake's refusal to have the trial moved from Houston, and the judge's decision to select the jury himself. Other appeal points include Judge Lake's refusal to grant defense requests for immunity so certain Enron officials could testify, as well as his instruction allowing conviction when the defendants are found to have willfully refused to obtain information that could have uncovered fraud. Petrocelli says the government did not produce documents linking Lay and Skilling to crimes, instead relying on evidence given by Enron employees testifying in exchange for reduced sentences.

The Royal Bank of Scotland is close to agreeing to a settlement with Enron shareholders, according to the Daily Telegraph. RBS is accused of helping Enron conceal its accounting fraud. According to the UK newspaper, the bank will shortly close a multi-million pound civil action by paying out nearly $180 million, although executives close to the bank are reported as saying it could double this amount. Britain's second-biggest bank operates in the United States through its retail arm Citizens Bank, which has some 1,600 branches.


Memorial Hermann Health Care System and MetroNational Corporation plan a 915,000 square-foot tower at I-10 and Gessner. The Houston Business Journal says its part of a long-term plan to develop a medical center at Memorial City. Memorial Hermann will move its system office staff in mid-2010 from the Southwest Freeway at Bissonnet to the Memorial City campus. The 25-story tower will be complete in mid 2009. The first 15 floors will house hospital inpatient services, and another 20 floors will be used for outpatient services and physician and system offices.


American Airlines is revamping the business-class sections on its long-haul jets. Fort Worth-based American is adding lie-flat seats and individual entertainment centers to better compete with carriers that already offer similar creature comforts. The makeover is complete on one plane used mostly on trans-Atlantic flights. American's Manager of Cabin Design--Jim Hadden--says the new seat will offer a combination of flatness, width and adjustments that can't be matched by other carriers. American will retrofit business cabins in its Boeing 767-300 and Boeing 777 aircraft over the next year or so. American's plans to upgrade its international business cabins were delayed by 9/11 and a near-bankruptcy in 2003. The unit of AMR plans to announce the new program at an industry event this week.

Houston-based Continental Airlines has won the Operations award at the Airline Strategy Awards 2006, held in London. The awards are given by Airline Business magazine. The judges noted the way the carrier organized and managed its Houston and New York/Newark hubs in the face of the natural disasters that befell the Gulf Coast region in 2005. Meanwhile, Continental has implemented electronic interline ticketing capabilities with Japan airlines--it's 50th eTicketing partner.


Anadarko Petroleum is selling Bear Head LNG, its subsidiary developing a liquified natural gas receiving terminal at Point Tupper, Nova Scotia in a $125 million deal with U.S. Venture Energy. Anadarko is divesting its Anadarko Canada subsidiary to retire debt associated with its pending acquisitions of Kerr-McGee and Western Gas Resources. Anadarko also announced an exploration joint venture with Chevron on acreage in the Delaware Basin in west Texas. Anadarko will serve as operator.


Canada-based Suncor Energy Services has awarded The Woodlands-based CB&I a $65 million contract to design and build process vessels for an expansion of Suncor's oil sand upgrading capacity. The Houston Business Journal reports CB&I will assemble six coke drums and one fractionator column by late 2008 for a site near Fort McMurray, Alberta where oil sands are processed into synthetic crude oil.


The Federal Reserve says industrial production surged eight-tenths of one percent in June. There were advances in manufacturing, mining and auto production. At the same time, industry was operating at 82.4 percent of capacity, the highest level in six years. Production was up 4.5 percent from year-earlier levels.


Texas has delayed expanding a program to verify motorists have auto insurance--while it determines the best way to manage the data of 15 million drivers. Officials say the program, which the 2005 legislature approved, is on hold until next year. Authorities must figure out how to step up enforcement without accidentally ticketing motorists because of bad information. Carol Cates with the Texas Department of Insurance says in several states, a lot of people were incorrectly identified as having no insurance. Cates says Texas wants to avoid that. The insurance industry estimates that Texas drivers pay about $900 million annually to protect themselves against uninsured drivers. Under the program, law enforcement officials, vehicle inspection stations and others would be able to instantly verify coverage.


Authorities have identified a worker who died when he fell about 90 feet from a gas rig in the Fort Worth area. Investigators believe 38-year-old Charles Mannon of Fort Worth was wearing a safety harness, but it wasn't attached to the rig. Officials say Mannon worked for Cheyenne Drilling of Fort Worth. The accident happened Friday.


A new cancer treatment facility in Houston sounds like something out of science fiction. The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center is now using its $125 million Proton Therapy Center. It's the largest of the nation's four such facilities that treat cancer by narrowly targeting protons on tumors. Experts say the method spares nearby healthy tissue that's often blasted with traditional X-ray radiation therapy. The treatment rooms look like the airlock of a science-fiction spaceship. But behind them are bending magnets, electrical wires and monitors that make up the gantry, encased in a steel barrel, three stories tall and weighing 190 tons. The protons, which are stripped from the nucleus of hydrogen atoms in a tubular device called an injector, are sent to a compact particle accelerator called a synchrotron. There they circle around until they gather enough energy to irradiate a tumor before being sent toward the patient. Dr. James Cox says it's a breakthrough.


Houston-based Satellite Logistics Group has received Heineken USA's inaugural Supply Chain Leadership Award. HUSA developed the award to recognize key vendors. Satellite Logistics specializes in the beverage industry, providing management of transportation, distribution and warehousing.


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