Tuesday AM January 29th, 2008

Former Arthur Andersen partner settles SEC lawsuit...Houston airports report record passenger and air cargo traffic figures in 2007...Aramark employees testify about poor food quality and unethical business practices...

A former Arthur Andersen partner in charge of the Enron account has settled a lawsuit with the Securities and Exchange Commission that accused him of antifraud violations, according to Bloomberg. David Duncan agreed to a permanent ban from working as an accountant in matters involving the SEC. Duncan pleaded guilty in 2002 to obstructing justice for helping destroy Enron documents to prevent them from being turned over the U.S. investigators. He was allowed to withdraw his guilty plea in 2005 after the reversal of the accounting firm's criminal conviction by the U.S. Supreme Court.


Houston's airports registered another record-setting year of passenger and air cargo traffic figures, according to the Houston Airport System. Over 387,000 metric tons of air cargo and 52 million passengers were served in 2007. Over 7.7 million were on their way to international destinations—a year-over-year increase of 4.2 percent. Over the past year, China Airlines Cargo, Korean Air Cargo, EVA Air Cargo, Emirates, Singapore Airlines, British Airways and Houston-based Continental Airlines have launched or announced 42 additional weekly flights from Houston. Three new Asian cargo carriers were inaugurated. Service to new markets started in Korea, Taipei, the United Arab Emirates, Moscow, Singapore and at Heathrow Airport in London.


Aramark workers held a public hearing at the Hilton Americas-downtown to discuss what they call poor food quality and unethical business practices. Aramark workers testified before Mayor Pro Tem Adrian Garcia and other city council members, complaining about shoddy service and poor conduct in Houston's venues. Workers reported Aramark serves lower quality food than paid for by clients, managers and supervisors cheat employees out of tips and workers are shuffled between Aramark and a related staffing company to that Aramark can avoid paying overtime. Aramark provides food and property services to the George R. Brown Convention Center, Reliant Stadium, Minute Maid Park and the University of Houston.


The Houston Sierra Club is urging Dynegy to shift investments away from six proposed coal plants nationwide to cleaner energy solutions. One of the plants would be in Riesel, Texas. The group held a news conference outside Dynegy's corporate headquarters to kick off what they call National Call-In Day, including members of the Sierra Club's National Coal campaign andξthe director of Rice University's Center for the Study of the Environment and Society.


A McDermott International subsidiary has been awarded government defense contracts valued at about $500 million, according to the Houston Business Journal. The Babcock and Wilcox Company will manufacture nuclear components as part of a previously announced $1.7 billion series of orders anticipated to be awarded by 2010.


Baskin-Robbins hosts a seminar this morning for potential franchisees at the Hilton Hotel Southwest on the Southwest Freeway. Baskin-Robbins has expansion plans this year for Houston set in place. The Massachusetts-based company has more than 5,800 retail shops around the globe.


Harris County taxpayers must pay their 2007 property taxes by January 31st—this Thursday—or face a seven percent penalty and interest charge. Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt says missing the deadline would cost the average taxpayer about $232 more to pay their property tax bill. The Harris County Downtown Tax Office branch on Preston will extend its hours this Thursday until 6 p.m. Payments can also be made at the Harris County Appraisal District on the North Freeway until 5:30 p.m. Taxpayers can drop their check in the mail, but it must be postmarked no later than January 31st.


A new study suggests that Americans who have money stored in individual retirement accounts tend to hang on to it for use in the later years of their retirement. The Investment Company Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association, found that less than one-fifth of households with IRAs made withdrawals from their accounts in tax year 2006, with the typical withdrawal averaging about six percent of the balance. According to the study, when asked about future withdrawals, seven in ten of those surveyed said it is unlikely they will take withdrawals prior to age 70 and a half. Sarah Holden, the ICI's senior director for retirement and investor research, noted that the rules governing IRAs, which are tax-deferred savings accounts, discourage early withdrawals. Savers who withdraw funds before age 59 and a half are subject to a ten percent penalty; savers older than 59 and a half but younger than 70 and a half may take withdrawals without penalty. But once they reach 70 and a half, the law mandates "required minimum distributions'' based on IRS tables. The latest ICI study found that 40 percent of all U.S. households, or 46 million, have money in IRAs with assets totaling $4.6 trillion in mid-2007. Most have traditional IRAs, which can be funded with pretax dollars, but a growing number are investing in Roth IRAs, which don't get the upfront tax break but grow tax-free forever.


The New York private equity firm Blackstone Group has reiterated its interest in acquiring Alliance Data Systems. But it says the $6.4 billion deal for the Dallas-based credit card provider is in jeopardy because regulators want to place onerous terms on it. Blackstone says the comptroller of the currency had slapped "unprecedented and unacceptable financial and operational requirements'' on the acquisition. However, it "stands ready'' to find a new agreement that might be resubmitted to the regulator. Alliance Data has said Blackstone's scrapping the idea because it feels regulators want to place onerous terms on the takeover.


Halliburton says its fourth-quarter profit rose almost five percent from a year ago. The Houston-based oilfield services provider credits growing business in the eastern hemisphere, in part, for the improvement. The company is placing greater resources in the east. Net income in the October-December period rose to $690 million. Halliburton's quarterly revenue rose 19 percent to $4.2 billion, topping analysts' estimates of $4.1 billion. For the year, Halliburton said its net income rose 52 percent to $3.5 billion. Full-year revenue rose 18 percent to $15.3 billion.


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