Thursday July 21st, 2005

Jurors barred from discussing Enron Broadband mistrial pending decision on whether five defendants will be re-tried…Royal Dutch Shell now trading as one company under “RDS” symbol after unification…Houston online job recruitment remained flat in June… The federal judge in the Enron Broadband trial issued an order barring jurors from discussing the case, pending retrial, after […]

Jurors barred from discussing Enron Broadband mistrial pending decision on whether five defendants will be re-tried…Royal Dutch Shell now trading as one company under “RDS” symbol after unification…Houston online job recruitment remained flat in June…

The federal judge in the Enron Broadband trial issued an order barring jurors from discussing the case, pending retrial, after prosecutors failed to win a single conviction after a three-month fraud and conspiracy trial in Houston. Three former executives were acquitted of some charges, but jurors deadlocked on the remaining charges involving them and two other executives. Former strategist Scott Yeager was acquitted of conspiracy and security and wire fraud counts.

Scott Yeager audio

Yeager’s attorney is Tony Canales.

Tony Canales audio

Former Broadband CEO Joseph Hirko was acquitted on insider trading and money laundering counts, software engineer Rex Shelby was acquitted of insider trading charges. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on counts involving former finance chief Kevin Howard and in-house accountant Michael Krautz. The five were on trial for their alleged roles in making the broadband venture appear strong to investors to bolster Enron’s stock price. U. S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore set a September date for a pretrial conference, but it’s unclear whether prosecutors will retry the case.

The Enron Task Force has a new director. Sean Berkowitz replaces Andrew Weismann, who had headed the group since March 2004. Berkowitz had been assigned to be a prosecutor in the upcoming case against former Enron Chairman Ken Lay, former CEO Jeff Skilling and former Chief Accounting Officer Rick Causey. Prosecutor Kathryn Ruemmler now becomes the task force’s assistant director. Two new prosecutors from Washington, D. C. and California will be added to the task force.

Former Enron executive Dan Boyle is scheduled to surrender to a federal prison in Beaumont on August 30th for his conviction in the Enron Nigerian barge scam. U. S. District Judge Ewing Werlein signed the order for Boyle, who will serve a three-year, ten-month prison term for fraud. Four former Merrill Lynch bankers were also convicted in the 2004 case.

Enron is trying to collect $125 million from public utility customers in Snohomish County, Washington. Enron has hired a lobbyist in hopes of overturning an amendment to an energy bill in the U. S. Senate. The amendment could save customers in Washington and Nevada from paying Enron contract-termination fees. The provision by Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington would give federal regulators the power to decide whether a public utility must pay such fees to end its contract early. Currently, the bankruptcy court overseeing Enron’s case has that authority. If the Federal Commission determines that Enron’s contract with Snohomish County was fraudulent, it likely would rule against such fees. The Snohomish County utility canceled its energy contract with Enron in 2001, days before the company declared bankruptcy.

Royal Dutch Shell has begun trading as one company under the symbol “RDS” after a unification that now has the company under a single management and supervisory board in The Hague. The company is incorporated in London. Assets of the oil giant had been split 60-40 between Royal Dutch Petroleum, based in the Netherlands, and the London-based Shell Transport & Trading Company, according to John Hofmeister, president of Shell Oil Company and U. S. country chair.

John Hofmeister audio 1

Shell was forced to repeatedly lower estimates of its oil and gas reserves in 2004, and some financial analysts have said this led to the unification.

John Hofmeister audio 2

The company has two classes of shares on each exchange, as old Royal Dutch shares were converted to Class A shares and Shell Transport shares became Class B shares. Each offers the same ownership in the company, but showed differing prices because Class A share dividends are taxed more highly for British investors.

The Monster Worldwide employment index for Houston finds that online job recruitment activity remained flat in June, using data from May and June as a baseline. The index is a snapshot of online job postings as an indicator of employer demand for workers. Demand for workers in Houston rose in six of 18 occupational categories. National data is based on a real-time review of millions of employer job opportunities culled from more than 1,500 web sites, including Monster.

Ferrellgas Partners is closing its Houston office in the next two months, according to the Houston Business Journal. The company will transfer as many as 60 jobs to the Kansas City area. The Houston office of the Kansas-based propane retailer houses the company’s supply and transportation group.

The Coast Guard investigation continues at BP’s $1 billion Thunder Horse oil and natural gas platform about 150 miles southeast of New Orleans. BP and lead contractor SMIT Salvage Americas slowly leveled the platform since it was discovered tilting at 20 to 30 degrees after Hurricane Dennis hit the Gulf of Mexico. BP owns a 75 percent stake in the venture, which is scheduled to start production later this year. The Coast Guard and BP continue working to determine the cause.

Merck’s top epidemiologist today questioned the diagnosis of an emergency room doctor who blamed a heart attack for a Texan’s death. The testimony came in Angleton in the nation’s first Vioxx-related lawsuit to go to trial. The case involves the 2001 death of Robert Ernst, who’d taken the painkiller. Nancy Santanello says the doctor made a “presumptive diagnosis” when Ernst died in his sleep in 2001 and was rushed to a hospital. Santanello says had Ernst been alive, the doctor could have performed tests to confirm whether he’d suffered a heart attack. She said the ultimate diagnosis comes from an autopsy. Merck pulled Vioxx from the market in September when a study showed it could double risk of heart attack or stroke. Merck claims no studies link Vioxx to arrhythmia–so the drug couldn’t have caused Ernst’s death.

Christus St. Joseph Hospital is transferring five residency programs for 76 residents to The Methodist Hospital. Christus Health announced earlier this year that its Houston hospital will be sold. Christus has been soliciting interest from health care providers to purchase the downtown facility.

Christus Health Gulf Coast is planning a health care facility at Highway 6 and Sienna Parkway in Sienna Plantation. Construction is planned to begin in the winter of 2006. Memorial Hermann Health Care System currently operates the only hospital in Missouri City. But that hospital system has put its Memorial Hermann Fort Bend Hospital up for sale, and its new Sugar Land hospital opens in December 2006.

The Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau will host 27 conventions and trade shows in August and September. Attendees will spend an estimated $16.2 million while here, according to GHCVB president and CEO Jordy Tollett.

The 53-story Heritage Plaza on Bagby in downtown Houston has been sold to Atlanta-based Goddard Investment Group. The investment firm plans to build a parking garage on adjacent land and will renovate the building. Formerly known at Texaco Heritage Plaza, name was shortened since Chevron absorbed Texaco and pulled out of this and other downtown buildings.

Houston-based eCORP has sold the Stagecoach Natural Gas Storage natural gas storage facility to Kansas City-based Inergy in a $230 million deal, according to the Houston Chronicle. The facility is about 150 miles northwest of New York City.

SBC Communications says costs associated with the merger of its joint venture Cingular Wireless, with AT&T Wireless, took a toll on its bottom line. San Antonio-based SBC’s quarterly income fell 14 percent to $1 billion, down from nearly $1.2 billion last year. SBC revenues rose a little more than one percent to $10.3 billion. SBC, a Dow Jones Industrials component, owns Cingular in partnership with Atlanta-based Bellsouth. SBC itself is in the process of buying long-distance company AT&T, making it one of the world’s largest telephone companies.

Continental Airlines plans to begin non-stop Saturday service between its Newark Liberty International Airport hub and Liberia, Costa Rica on December 17th. The new service will add to the Houston-based air carrier’s existing daily non-stop service from Houston to that Costa Rican city.

Southwest Airlines today proposed building its own $130 million terminal at Boeing Field in Seattle so it can transfer operations from Sea-Tac Airport. Dallas-based Southwest would own the eight-gate terminal at Boeing Field, officially a King County airport. The airport is closer than Sea-Tac to downtown Seattle and now serves corporate jets, charters and Boeing planes being prepared for delivery. In the proposal presented today to King County, Southwest says it can’t expand at Sea-Tac. Southwest would own the new terminal but it would ask the county to pay for road improvements and other infrastructure. Southwest says it hopes to start operating at Boeing Field in 2009.

Money magazine ranks Sugar Land as number 46 in its 2005 list of best places to live in the United States. Only two other Texas cities are on the list–Colleyville near Dallas ranked 40th and Boerne near San Antonio came in at number 48. The list is based on data for more than 1,300 cities with populations of more than 14,000 with above-average income, population growth and real estate appreciation during the past five years.