Thursday AM May 31st, 2007

Metro's planned north and southeast corridors to benefit from federal pilot program...Moncrief Oil International goes to court to secure stake in Russian gas field...Despite Houston's booming economy, thousands from New Orleans still unemployed 19 months after Hurricane Katrina...

The planned north and southeast corridors of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County have been chosen for a federal pilot program to expedite the construction of transit systems, according to the Houston Business Journal. Metro says the public-private partnership program will allow it to complete the project faster and at less cost by accelerating final design approval, streamlining the project development process and expediting approval of a full-funding grant agreement.


A Fort Worth-based oil company goes to court today to secure a stake in a vast Russian gas field. Privately held Moncrief Oil International contends in the German court that a joint venture between German chemical giant BASF and Russia's OAO Gazprom should be voided. The court hearing is expected to last weeks. In the suit, Moncrief contends that BASF's deal with Gazprom shouldn't be permitted because Moncrief had inked its own deal with Gazprom in the late 1990s. Copies of that contract were seen by the Associated Press. Moncrief signed deals with Gazprom for a 40 percent stake of the Yuzhno Russkoye gas field. The stake has an estimated value of $8.5 billion. BASF has said it believes Moncrief's claims "are without any merit.''


Some striking Pantex security guards have returned to work at the nation's only nuclear weapons assembly and disassembly plant. That's after the Pantex guard union ratified a new five-year contract. The union went on strike April 16th on issues including seniority, wages and the cost of health insurance. The 537-member group rejected two proposals before accepting an offer. Pantex officials say they've started a transition plan for returning all the guards to their duties. Guards from other federal weapons facilities and nonunion guards from the 16,000-acre panhandle plant filled in during the six-week strike near Amarillo.


Four current and former partners of the giant accounting firm Ernst and Young are charged with tax fraud conspiracy and other crimes. The allegations relate to tax shelters that helped the wealthy escape taxes on incomes exceeding $10 million. One of those charged Plano lawyer Robert Coplan, who once was a branch chief in the IRS Legislation and Regulations Division. According to an indictment filed in federal court in Manhattan, all four worked in a group set up by the company in 1998 to develop tax shelters. They allegedly defrauded the Internal Revenue Service from 1998 through 2004 by designing, marketing and selling fraudulent tax shelters. No comment from Ernst and Young. The four are charged with conspiracy to defraud the IRS, tax evasion, making false statements and impeding and impairing the lawful functioning of the IRS.


Officials say that 19 months after Hurricane Katrina sent evacuees from New Orleans streaming into Houston, more than 5,000 heads of households among them are still unemployed despite the city's booming economy. The number of jobless is contributing to the sense among some Houston-area residents that the storm's victims are a drain on the city and have worn out their welcome. After the storm, a quarter-million evacuees were brought to Houston, welcomed by Mayor Bill White, who threw open the Astrodome. Even before the storm, many were desperately poor, unemployed and on welfare or food stamps. Many had been holding out hope that they would be home in New Orleans by now, but the city's rebuilding has been painfully slow, and about 100,000 are still in Houston. They have settled in more or less permanently, some still on food stamps. The city says that about 12,000 families are still getting federal aid for housing. Of that group, about 5,500 heads of households are unemployed, not counting those who are elderly and disabled.


The nation's employers are warning Congress of likely system overload if they're forced to prove, electronically, that all their workers are legal. Almost 17,000 employers now check the immigration status of employees through a system. Federal immigration officials say employees have used it to check almost 1.8 million employees. Immigration law now leaves it to employers to verify that they're hiring legal workers. But the 1986 law hasn't been strictly enforced. Immigration legislation pending in the Senate would require that social security numbers, identification and other information supplied by all U.S. workers be run through the electronic system. If the proposal becomes law, employers would have to check all new hires within 18 months of its enactment, and check all other employees within three years. That could mean millions more employers logging on to a system that, right now, is still under development. U.S. business and labor officials estimate there are seven to eight million employers and 140 million employees in the country. Under the Senate proposal, employers who have illegal workers on the payroll could face fines from $5,000 per worker to up to $75,000 and six months in jail per worker. Screening proponents say the requirement is needed because too many employers are hiring illegal immigrants, whether knowingly or unwittingly. But the worker check system can't verify the accuracy of all information submitted to an employer. That includes drivers licenses and state identification cards obtained with stolen or borrowed birth certificates.


Immigrants eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship and legal permanent residency will have to pay nearly double and even triple in fees. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services says its fee increases will take effect July 30th. Citizenship application fees will rise from $330 to $595, plus $80 for required electronic fingerprints, an increase of $10. For legal permanent residency and fingerprints the cost will be $1,010. The cost now is $325. Officials with Citizenship and Immigration Services say the increases are needed to improve service, hire 1,500 workers, improve offices, equipment and systems to process applications.


Illegal immigrants who worked long shifts scrubbing theme restaurants for an indicted janitorial firm have signed their names to a lawsuit seeking unpaid wages. The lawsuit filed in federal court in Philadelphia alleges that some plaintiffs were rounded up in federal workplace raids in February and deported before they got their final paychecks. Others said they worked 80- or 100-hour weeks without overtime pay or even the prevailing minimum wage. No immediate comment from the contractor. The 14 plaintiffs are mostly from Mexico. They'd worked for the Florida-based janitorial contractor for Rosenbaum-Cunningham International. In Philadelphia, the company placed workers in Dave and Buster's. The Dallas-based restaurant chain has a popular waterfront outpost in the city. The suit was filed in March, but plaintiff's attorneys say other workers placed at chain restaurants in Texas, California, New York and other states are expected to join. The lawyers plan to seek class-action status. The attorneys are trying to reach hundreds of immigrants detained in the February raids, which targeted 63 restaurants in 18 states that used Rosenbaum-Cunningham workers. Those include Hard Rock Caf?, ESPN Zone and Planet Hollywood.


Continental Airlines and Sustainable Travel International have announced a joint venture to allow passengers to calculate the carbon footprint of their itinerary and purchase carbon offsets. Passengers will soon be able to buy the offsets at the point of ticket purchase, at check-in or online. The Colorado nonprofit group will use the money generated by carbon offsets to fund high-impact sustainable development projects such as reforestation, renewable energy and energy conservation.


Wal-Mart is the Rodney Dangerfield of retailing, in the view of an ad agency that was fighting to keep Wal-Mart's business last year. A marketing report by Austin-based ad firm GSD&M told the world's largest retailer that that while it is a "positive force'' because low prices help shoppers lead better lives, the company suffers a lack of respect that could drive away shoppers. The report was provided to the Associated Press by WakeupWalMart.com, a union-funded group that is critical of the retailer. The report warned Wal-Mart that it was being portrayed in the media as a "bad corporate citizen who doesn't treat employees well and isn't acting as a good citizen of the planet.'' Wal-Mart acknowledges that the report is genuine but plays down its significance, saying "it's now completely out of date and in some areas just plain wrong.''


A new survey by the National Retail Federation finds organized retail crime is getting worse. The trade group defines organized retail crime as theft or fraud involving multiples of items by two or more people in more than one store. According to the survey, 79 percent of retailers say their company has been victimized within the past year. Seventy-one percent of retailers say they've noticed an increase in organized retail theft activity in the past 12 months. A year ago, 48 percent said that. There's also growing industry awareness of the situation. The survey shows 57 percent of retailing companies' top management understands the issue, compared with just 41 percent in 2006. And one in ten retailers is spending more than a million dollars a year to fight and prevent organized retail crime.


Houston Community College and the Brays Oaks Management District are sponsoring a breakfast for business owners at Chancellors Restaurant on Dumfries this morning. The groups are supporting a 12-day self-sufficiency program for job readiness, targeting Katrina evacuees now living in southwest Houston.

An inner city youth training program celebrates its 5th anniversary this evening. The reception for Genesys Works is at Heritage Hall on Travis this afternoon at 5:30. Reliant Energy, United Space Alliance and El Paso Corporation will be honored for supporting the program.


Hain Celestial Group is buying Whitewave Foods Company's tofu and meat-alternative business. Whitewave is a subsidiary of Dallas-based Dean Foods Company. Hain Celestial says the acquisition should close in June although terms of the agreement weren't disclosed. The sale excluded the Whitewave trademark, but Hain Celestial will continue to offer the products under that brand during a transitional period. Broomfield, Colorado-based Whitewave offers the products under the brand names of Tofutown and Whitewave. They're manufactured in Boulder. Based in Melville, New York, Hain Celestial is a natural and organic products company whose offerings include Boulder-based Celestial Seasonings.


A bankruptcy judge says Asarco can sell a nearly seven-acre parcel in Salt Lake City to Western States Lodging for $2.2 million, as the copper miner works toward its goal of filing a Chapter 11 plan by November. Judge Richard S. Schmidt of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Corpus Christi on Friday approved a deal in which Western States will serve as lead bidder in a court-supervised auction. Asarco has been operating under Chapter 11 protection since August 2005, and is selling off a number of properties to increase the pool of cash available to pay its creditors. The company owns a plant in El Paso that has been closed since 1999.


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