Tuesday PM November 27th, 2007

Oscar Wyatt, Jr., sentenced for his role in UN Oil-for-Food scandal...Second judge recuses himself from BP case; BP pushes for judge to sign off on felony plea deal stemming from March 2005 Texas City refinery explosion...Houston business leaders participate in one-day business development mission to Mexico City...

Houston oilman Oscar Wyatt, Jr., has been sentenced to 12 months and one day in prison for his role in the United Nations Oil-for-Food scandal. The 83-year-old Texan was sentenced in federal court in New York. He also has agreed to forfeit $11 million. Wyatt last month pleaded guilty to charges that he paid millions of dollars to Iraqi officials to illegally win contracts related to the UN program. Wyatt admitted he agreed in late 2001 to advise others to pay a surcharge into an Iraqi account in Jordan--in violation of a program rule calling for no direct payments to Iraq. The Oil-for-Food program became corrupted in 2000 when Iraqi officials began demanding illegal surcharges in return for contracts to buy Iraqi oil. The program ran from 1996 to 2003. The program permitted the Iraqi government to sell oil primarily to buy food and medicine for suffering Iraqis. Prosecutors said Wyatt had such a close relationship with Iraq that he was able to meet personally with Saddam Hussein in December 1990 to argue for the release of Americans being held as potential shields in the event of a U.S.-Iraq war. The government insisted that Wyatt later took advantage of that relationship to secure the first contract under the Oil-for-Food program and to continue to receive oil deals after other American companies were shut off.

BP is pushing for a judge to sign off on a felony plea deal stemming from the deadly March 2005 explosion at its Texas City refinery. But U.S. District Judge David Hittner today recused himself from handling the criminal case arising from the explosion, citing a personal connection with a psychiatrist who has worked for BP as an expert witness. He had taken over the case last week when another judge recused himself. Previously, U.S. District Judge Gray Miller recused himself when a plaintiff's attorney complained that Judge Miller once worked for Fulbright & Jaworski, which represents BP in civil litigation. The plea deal announced last month calls for BP to plead guilty to a felony environmental crime under the Clean Air Act and pay a fine of $50 million. BP is also pleading guilty this week to a misdemeanor environmental crime and pay $20 million in fines related to last year's oil spill in Prudhoe Bay. BP will also pay $303.5 million in a propane market manipulation charge. BP still faces hundreds of lawsuits related to the Texas City explosion. It has paid more then $1.6 billion to settle most of them.

Houston business leaders took part in a one-day business development mission to Mexico City on Monday. The Greater Houston Partnership trip took 18 Houstonians to meet with Mexican businessman Carlos Slim and others. Mexico is Houston's largest trading partner, with trade hitting $17.8 billion in 2006.

Home prices dropped nearly five percent in the third quarter compared to the same time last year in the latest Standard & Poor's Nationwide Housing Index. S&P says prices fell 4.5 percent from July to September, the biggest drop since the index began in 1987. The research group says the decline is another sign the housing slump is far from over. The index also found prices dropped 1.7 percent from the second quarter, the biggest quarter-to-quarter decline in the history of the index. A separate index that covers 20 U.S. metropolitan areas shows prices dropped an average of almost five percent in September compared to a year earlier, with 15 metro areas posting declines.

It's not a good sign for the nation's retailers looking for strong returns from the holiday shopping season. The Conference Board says its Index of Consumer Confidence has dropped nearly eight points to 87.3. That's down from the revised 95.2 in October. It is the lowest reading since October 2005. An official with the business research group blames the drop on volatility in the financial markets, rising prices at the pump and the likelihood of higher home heating bills this winter.

A recent report from the Energy Forum at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy says reliance on imported natural gas is here to stay, according to the Houston Business Journal. The study finds that demand for natural gas in the U.S. is expected to rise an average of 1.3 percent a year. About one-fifth of all natural gas consumed in the U.S. is imported--mostly from Canada. The study says if new lands are not opened up for drilling, liquid natural gas imports from the Middle East and Africa could make up 30 percent of total energy supply.

After an all-nighter that bore no results, striking Broadway stagehands and theater producers will try again Wednesday. Both sides will resume negotiations to try to work out a deal to end their labor dispute, which has shut down theaters for more than two weeks. The two sides have been through two marathon negotiating sessions in the last two days, the most recent ending this morning. The Thanksgiving holiday week is usually one of the best times of the year for Broadway. But not so this year, with most of Broadway, including such big hits as "Wicked,'' "The Lion King,'' "Mamma Mia!'' and "The Phantom of the Opera,'' shut down since the stagehands walked out November 10th. The dispute has focused on how many stagehands are required to open a Broadway show and keep it running.

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