Thursday PM November 30th, 2006

Angola to apply for OPEC membership...Three survivors of BP refinery explosion that killed 15 critical of company's slow payment of medical bills...Harris County grand jury indicts 33 for state Medicaid program fraud...

Angola, Africa's largest sub-Saharan oil producer after Nigeria, will apply to join OPEC next month. The Angolan government says the application stems from its "growing role in the world oil sector.'' Angola's crude production, most of it from offshore rigs operated by foreign companies, has climbed to nearly 1.5 million barrels a day. It is expected to reach two million barrels a day by April next year. The southwest African country is China's largest supplier of crude. Angola is currently an associate member of OPEC, allowing it to send representatives to the group's meetings. In Vienna, an OPEC spokesman says he does not foresee any problems with Angola's application. OPEC currently has 11 member countries.


Three survivors of the BP refinery explosion that killed 15 are asking a judge to review how the London-based company is meeting its legal obligations to pay medical bills. BP says an "inadvertent administrative delay" slowed down payment of the worker's medical bills between March 23rd, 2005—the day of the explosion—and August 1st, 2005, according to the Houston Chronicle. BP says steps have been taken to improve the system, and no medical care was affected by the delays.


A Harris County grand jury has indicted 33 people for allegedly scheming to defraud the state Medicaid program. The Texas Attorney General's Office today announced the alleged scheme cost taxpayers more than $7.7 million. The AG's investigation concentrated on 32 Harris County businesses that allegedly billed Medicaid for adult diapers, wheelchairs and other medical supplies. The indictments allege the suspects took reimbursements based on those billings for supplies that were never delivered to patients. Attorney General Greg Abbott says most of those indicted are of Nigerian origin and are believed to be loosely connected. Sixteen arrests have been made so far this week. Eight of those still at-large are overseas.


South Korean prosecutors said today they're questioning a two-time former finance minister on the Korean Exchange Bank acquisition by Lone Star Funds. Lee Hun-Jai served as South Korean Finance Minister in 2000 and again from 2004 to 2005. He resigned in March 2005 amid a controversy over real-estate transactions by his wife. Lee--who couldn't be reached for comment--advised a South Korean law firm that in 2003 advised Dallas-based Lone Star on its KEB acquisition. Prosecutors have been investigating Lone Star, former KEB management and several former and current government officials for allegedly conspiring to understate KEB's finances to ease its sale to Lone Star. Under South Korean law, foreign funds like Lone Star can gain control of only financially insolvent banks. Lone Star has vigorously denied any wrongdoing.


Pilgrim's Pride said today that it's hostile bid for rival Gold Kist is backed by owners of most of Gold Kist's shares. Pittsburg-based Pilgrim's Pride is the nation's second-largest poultry producer. It says Gold Kist shareholders tendered 67 percent of the company's stock in support of Pilgrim's Pride's $1 billion takeover offer by the end of Wednesday. That's based on a Pilgrim's Pride bid of $20 per share. Pilgrim's Pride also says it's extending until December 27th its tender offer to buy all outstanding Gold Kist shares. No comment yet from Atlanta-based Gold Kist. On Tuesday, it said its directors were willing to pursue a deal with pilgrim's pride--but that the $20-per-share offer wasn't good enough. Pilgrim's Pride announced in August it would bid for Gold Kist--which is the nation's number three poultry company. It began its tender offer for Gold Kist in September. But Gold Kist says it wants to remain an independent company and has taken legal action to ward off the bid.


A judge has cut the punitive damages a former Arizona regulator must pay for misusing his office. Authorities say former Corporation Commissioner Jim Irvin had been required to pay $60 million. He now must pay $4 million. The federal judge in Phoenix trimmed the 2002 jury award after an appeals court ruling found the $60 million judgment is excessive. Irvin also must pay $390,000 in actual damages for influencing the outcome of a $2 billion bidding war for Las Vegas-based Southwest Gas. Houston-based utility Southern Union in 1999 sued Irvin and others after Southwest Gas spurned its takeover offer. Testimony indicated Irvin used his office to steer the deal to rival bidder Oneok--putting his friend Jack Rose in a position to collect substantial finder's fees.


Jimmy Buffett and a Galveston merchant have settled a dispute over the merchant's allegedly unlawful use of Buffett's trademark at an online store. But the settlement didn't come before the merchant spent a few hours in jail. The lawsuit filed earlier this month in a Galveston federal court sought to shut down Robert Akard's Web site. The lawsuit accused Akard of unlawfully selling bootleg and marked-up Buffett items on the site. Among them were t-shirts and other items depicting either Buffett or slogans associated with him. Akard's lawyer had called Buffett a financial empire trying to shut down a small business. But on November 13th, a federal judge ordered Akard to shut down his site until the case was resolved. Then Monday, the judge ordered Akard arrested for contempt of court after finding the site still up. After a few hours in jail, Akard agreed to stop selling any item bearing Buffett's likeness or any of his registered slogans or images. He also must turn over all inventory bearing such images or slogans to Buffett's attorneys. The order doesn't require Akard to shut down his site.


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