Tuesday PM February 20th, 2007

Prosecutors consider third trial attempt for former Enron broadband unit finance chief...Harris County Judge Robert Eckels to become partner at Fulbright & Jaworski...JetBlue restores full operations....

Federal prosecutors say they are considering whether to appeal the decision by U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore to toss out five convictions of conspiracy, wire fraud and falsifying books against former Enron broadband unit finance chief Kevin Howard. Howard was first tried alongside three other former broadband executives in a case that ended with a handful of acquittals and jurors unable to reach verdicts on some counts. A jury found Howard guilty in a second trial in which co-defendant Michael Krautz was acquitted. But Judge Gilmore erased the convictions because the way prosecutors used a legal theory in a separate Enron case was ruled as flawed by the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Harris County Judge Robert Eckels is quitting to become a partner at Fulbright & Jaworski. Details are in a statement released today by the international law firm. Eckels last week announced plans to step down after 12 years leading the nation's third-largest county. The attorney drew national praise after Hurricane Katrina when the Houston area welcomed tens of thousands of evacuees. Eckels is a 49-year-old Republican former Texas House member who's expected to work on issues relating to public finance at the law firm. A start date for his new job hasn't been set. Harris County Commissioners are expected to choose a successor to serve until a special election in November decides who will finish Eckel's term.

Low-cost airline JetBlue has restored full operations, nearly a week after a winter storm crippled the carrier. The airline also will introduce a customer bill of rights and procedures for handling disruptions so passengers won't be stuck on planes for hours as they were last week, when a snow and ice storm hit. JetBlue says it waited too long to call for help in getting the passengers off planes because it hoped the weather would let up and flights would be able to proceed. David Stempler with the Air Travelers Association suggests the airline brought the crisis on itself by trying to do the right thing for its passengers despite the bad weather. He says most airlines don't try to operate at all during an ice storm. The carrier canceled Monday's flights in and out of 11 cities--including Austin and Houston.

ExxonMobil and Qatar Petroleum have announced they'll scrap a gas-to-liquids project. Instead, the companies will develop another project to provide natural gas to the domestic Qatari market. The domestic project, Barzan, will supply domestic gas to the booming Qatari economy. Qatar has seen unprecedented industrial growth amid a natural gas boom. The move comes amid soaring costs for major capital projects like converting gas to petroleum liquids. The liquids are easier to export by tanker ship than the gas. Irving-based ExxonMobil and Qatar signed an agreement for the gas-to-liquids project in July of 2004. The deal was due to expire later this year.

The chief executive of Russia's biggest oil producer says the company is paying more than $400 million for U.S. partner ConocoPhillips' filling station network in eastern and northern Europe. The Russian news agency Interfax reports Lukoil CEO Vagit Alekperov's announcement is the first sign of how much Lukoil's paying for the 376 gas stations in the Jet network. The move awaits regulatory approval from the European Union. Houston-based ConocoPhillips holds close to a 20 percent stake in Lukoil. The Jet network includes 156 stations in Belgium, 49 in Finland, 44 in the Czech Republic, 30 in Hungary, 83 in Poland, and 14 in the Slovak Republic.

Lawyers for workers injured during BP deadly 2005 Texas City plant explosion plan to question outgoing CEO Lord John Brown this week. The fiery accident killed 15 people and injured more than 170 others. The deposition originally was ordered last October by State District Judge Susan Criss in Galveston. BP had appealed--delaying the deposition. During a court hearing, a BP attorney said the company has filed an appeal with the Texas Supreme Court to stop the deposition. An appeals court in Houston earlier this month ordered Browne to give a deposition to attorneys for two contract workers suing BP for injuries they sustained in the blast. Those civil lawsuits are set for trial next week. BP earlier this year announced Browne would step down by the end of July--more than a year ahead of schedule.

Eleven protesters who were among those arrested for blocking traffic during a demonstration by janitors for higher pay last November have received two-day jail sentences and must pay court costs. The out-of-state union protesters received credit for the three days they spent in jail, so they won't have to actually serve the two-day sentences. Six other out-of-state protesters were sentenced to seven days in jail and fined $2,000 each, plus court costs, after a trial earlier this month. They also received credit for time spent in jail. Nine union protesters who blocked traffic near the Galleria during another demonstration agreed last week to pay $250 each in court costs and spend two days in jail, but the time spent in jail was credited. The protests were part of a campaign by the Service Employees International Union to increase the wages of janitors.

The Texas House has approved a plan to make sure elderly homeowners get the same property tax relief as others do from a new school funding law. The House also tentatively approved legislation to allocate money to pay for a $14 billion school property tax cut granted in a 2006 special session. Lawmakers last year reduced school property tax rates for most homeowners by one-third, phased in over two years, to comply with a court order. But the tax relief didn't apply to elderly and disabled homeowners. That's because their tax bills are frozen under a provision in the state constitution protecting them from increases in tax rates and property values. Removing the freeze, even for a reduction, requires a constitutional amendment.

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