Wednesday November 23rd, 2005

Prosecutors decide not to retry Arthur Andersen criminal case; David Duncan likely to escape prison time…Citgo Petroleum to supply home heating oil at below-market prices in Massachusetts and New York…AAA says Texas recovery from hurricane season not quick enough to match 2004 Thanksgiving travel… Attorneys for the former top Enron auditor at Arthur Andersen are […]

Prosecutors decide not to retry Arthur Andersen criminal case; David Duncan likely to escape prison time…Citgo Petroleum to supply home heating oil at below-market prices in Massachusetts and New York…AAA says Texas recovery from hurricane season not quick enough to match 2004 Thanksgiving travel…

Attorneys for the former top Enron auditor at Arthur Andersen are asking a Houston judge to let him withdraw his guilty plea to obstruction of justice. David Duncan had entered the plea for telling his staff to follow a little-known policy requiring destruction of unneeded documents. Andersen fired him in January 2002. Duncan was the first individual to plead guilty to charges emerging from the Enron scandal. He has been awaiting sentencing. That’s after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last May that overturned the obstruction of justice conviction against the firm. Federal prosecutors filed a motion this week to return the case against Arthur Andersen to a lower court–in a move to dismiss the indictment. The U.S. Attorney’s Office wants the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to return the case to a Houston trial court so a judge can vacate the conviction against Enron’s former accounting firm. Enron filed for bankruptcy protection in late 2001. Arthur Andersen was convicted in mid-2002 for destroying Enron-related documents prior to the Houston energy company’s collapse.

Thousands of low-income people in Massachusetts will get help with heating oil this winter from Venezuela, which has bumpy relations with the United States. Houston-based Citgo Petroleum will supply over 12 million gallons of home heating oil at 40 percent below market prices. It will be distributed by two non-profit organizations. Democratic Congressman William Delahunt of Massachusetts met with Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez in August to help broker the deal. Delahunt says his constituents’ needs trump any political points Chavez may score. At a news conference outside the home of a constituent in Quincy, Massachusetts, Delahunt said, “this is a humanitarian gesture.” The initial program will also benefit the Bronx in New York City. Chavez proposed offering fuel directly to poor American communities during a visit to Cuba in August. He says the American poor have been severely neglected by the Bush administration.

The Labor Department says the number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose sharply last week. The increase of a seasonally adjusted 30,000 claims puts the total at 335,000, the highest since the middle of last month. Hurricane-related job losses are put at 21,000. That’s well below the peak seen in September. The increase puts the total number of claims related to Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma at 582,000. The four-week moving average, used to monitor longer-term trends in the job market, rose by 1,250 last week to more than 323,000.

Hurricane evacuees and their dependents still in Texas shelters, hotels and motels who wish to relocate have until December 31st to get a free one-way ticket. The offer from the Federal Emergency Management Agency applies to evacuees from Katrina and Rita. One-way plane, train or bus tickets are available. Travel is restricted to the 48 states in the continental U.S. Katrina made landfall in late August, slamming parts of the Gulf Coast and swamping New Orleans. Rita came ashore September 24th near Sabine Pass. Officials estimate more than 50,000 evacuees are still in Texas hotels and motels, facing an updated January 7th deadline for FEMA to continue paying those housing costs. To apply, call: 1-800-621-FEMA.

The Houston U.S. Export Assistance Center has released data citing Texas small and medium-sized businesses exporting to China increased by 95 percent from 1999 to 2002, growing from 598 companies to 1,167. The number of enterprises nationwide exporting to China increased 354 percent from 1992-2002, making China the fastest-growing export destination in the world for American business, according to the office, which is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce Commercial Service. Small and medium-sized enterprises comprise 87 percent of the 16,434 U.S. exporters selling to China. In 2004, Texas exports to China grew nearly 46 percent, reaching $4.5 billion in sales. China is the state’s fourth-largest export market, according to the Export Assistance Center. Top Texas exports include chemical, machinery, and primary metal manufactures; computers and electronic products.

The Port of Houston Authority Commission looks at contract items, bids and proposals at its public meeting on Monday. The commission is considering an estimated $21.96 million construction contract with Morganti Texas for an office building at the first phase of the Bayport cruise terminal. The commission is also considering a $40.4 million construction contract with Orion Construction for wharf and dredging for the terminal. And they’re considering a nearly $15.28 million construction contract with Zachry Construction to develop the site and utilities for the terminal complex.

In all, Texas is getting $171.2 million for base construction projects in a spending bill Congress approved late last week. Houston’s Ellington Field will get $15 million to finish construction of a training facility for about 2,300 military reservists who are relocating to the site. Ellington lost some jets and the 14th Air National Guard in base closure decisions this year.

Congress also provided about $21.6 million for a vehicle maintenance shop at Fort Hood and $6.8 million for a physical fitness center. The center was one of three facilities that Congressman Chet Edwards says is funded for Fort Hood, even though funding had not been requested in President Bush’s budget. Congress did fund Bush’s $11 million request for a military working dog medical facility at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. Other funding includes $5 million for a vehicle bridge at Fort Bliss; $7 million to renovate the barracks wings and battalion command area at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio; $10 million for a T-10 jet engine test cell at Naval Air Station Kingsville; $7.9 million for an aircraft maintenance complex at Laughlin Air Force Base near Del Rio; and $5.7 million for Phase Two of an Army Reserve center in Grand Prairie.

The day after Thanksgiving is traditionally one of the busiest shopping days of the year. With online sales expected to post double-digit growth this year, shippers are gearing up for plenty of business as well. CEO of Fedex Ground Doug Duncan says all signs are pointing to a “very strong season.” He says December 12th will be his company’s busiest day, with 8.5 million packages on top of the normal freight volume. For the U.S. Postal Service, the peak mailing day is expected December 19th, with deliveries peaking two days later. As for traditional retailing, the International Council of Shopping Centers says Saturday, December 18th was the busiest shopping day last year. The day after Thanksgiving was the second-busiest day last year.

AAA says travel in Texas is recovering from the hurricane season but not quick enough to match Thanksgiving travel last year. The travel service company projects that 20,000 fewer Texas residents will travel this year, or about 3.27 million total. But a AAA spokeswoman says that falling gas prices should put Texans back on the road in greater numbers as Christmas and New Year’s get closer. Places such as Corpus Christi are averaging less than $2 per gallon for regular unleaded gasoline. San Antonio and Texarkana are nearing that mark. About 2.75 million holiday travelers are expected to drive in Texas–while about 310,000 will fly. AAA reports this year’s hot destinations are: San Antonio; Orlando, Florida; New York; Branson, Missouri; and ever popular Las Vegas.

Infrequent fliers take note: there are new rules, and unless you’re aware of them you could miss your flight this week. Airlines predict nearly 22 million people will fly on U.S. airlines over the Thanksgiving travel season. That’s slightly more than the record number that took to the air a year ago. Peak travel time starts tonight. The Transportation Security Administration no longer allows passengers to bring cigarette lighters, scissors or small knives on board. Security screening requires shoes be removed. Loafers are recommended. Self-service ticket machines save time. So does printing boarding passes at home. But security lines are unavoidable. At some airports, passengers will miss their flight if they aren’t at the gate 30 minutes beforehand.

The Energy Department won’t announce the winner of a contract to manage Los Alamos National Laboratory by a December 1st deadline. That word today from the Web site of the department’s National Nuclear Security Administration. The leader of the contract selection board wants more time to finish a report. The agency hasn’t set a new deadline, but says it does not expect a significant delay. Two teams are vying for the contract. One is headed by Lockheed Martin and the University of Texas. The other is headed by the University of California and Bechtel Corporation. The University of California has managed the lab in New Mexico since the site was created during World War II. Spokesman Rod Geer with the Lockheed/Texas group says team members are anxious for the decision, but know that DOE and the National Nuclear Security Administration want to do it right.

Schlumberger has acquired a minority share in Packers Plus Energy Services, a Canadian completions company. Schlumberger says the Packer Plus technology will enable the company to tailor stage treatment designs to yield better production results. There is a push to increase production from maturing fields.

Chevron has hired a Transocean Sedco-700 offshore drilling rig for at least three years under a contract valued at around $385 million. The deal calls for a $300 million upgrade of the rig, with work beginning in the second quarter of 2007. The upgrade includes dynamic positioning station keeping and water-depth drilling capability up to a maximum of 6,500 feet.

Sugar Land-based Noble is receiving a four-year contract from Shell Exploration & Production Company for Noble’s Bingo 9000 Rig 3 semisubmersible hull, currently in Dalian, China. The drilling contract for the Gulf of Mexico would be worth between $589 million to $594 million. A 32 to 36-month upgrade is planned before deployment.

A group led by Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder says it’s lined up enough shareholder votes to take over the Six Flags amusement park chain. Six Flags properties in Texas are in Arlington and San Antonio. The Houston park closed in November. Red Zone today announced it’s delivered written consents representing more than 57 percent of the Six Flags outstanding common stock. That would be enough to oust three members of the seven-member board of the Oklahoma City-based amusement park operator. A majority of the new board would then have to vote to replace the current management team. Snyder offered details in a news release contained in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing. Six Flags officials say the consents still must be verified by an independent auditor.

A jury has awarded more than $120 million to about 6,000 people who said pollutants from a now-closed refinery created a nuisance and health problems. The verdict handed down in Chicago on Monday came in a lawsuit filed ten years ago over the Clark Oil refinery in Blue Island, Illinois. Clark Refining and Marketing has since been renamed Premcor Incorporated, which San Antonio-based Valero Energy bought this year. About $100,000 also was awarded to 1,200 former students and staff from a high school affected by pollutants discharged in 1994. The discharge sent four dozen students to the hospital complaining of dizziness and breathing discomfort. The refinery closed in January 2001.

The Humane Society of the United States wants to stop a Texas company and others from shipping baby birds through the mail aboard commercial airliners. The society says the practice is inhumane and could trigger an Avian Flu outbreak–so it’s asked Postmaster General John Potter to bar the mail shipments of day-old birds on commercial airliners. A Postal Service spokesman said no decision was likely this week on the group’s request. The Humane Society highlighted Ideal Poultry Breeding Farms in Cameron, about 80 miles northeast of Austin, and Murray McMurray Hatchery in Webster City, Iowa. They’re two of the biggest hatcheries in the country. Ideal Poultry ships more than four million chicks a year and claims to be the largest supplier of backyard poultry in the United States. Most of its birds go to feed stores, which resell them to customers who raise the birds for food or eggs. Ideal Poultry co-owner Janet Crouch says shipping day-old birds is safe.

Continental Airlines is discontinuing its daily nonstop flights from Houston to Kahului, Hawaii, replacing it with a daily nonstop flight between Los Angeles and Kahului. Continental will still have two daily nonstops from Houston to Honolulu, and Texans wanting to fly to Maui can do so by changing planes in Los Angeles.

Asia Society Texas has been awarded a $7 million grant from the Brown Foundation of Houston for its Asia House project. Asia House is slated for completion in December 2009 on Caroline at Southmore in the Museum District. Asia House is designed to be a permanent facility for the Asia Society’s many programs and activities, as well as that of other Asian-American organizations. The Brown Foundation was founded in July 1951 by Herman and Margarett Root Brown and George R. and Alice Pratt Brown.