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Thursday December 8th, 2005

Lay’s attorney welcomes unsealed affidavits from Andrew Fastow…Jury deliberations begin in first federal Vioxx trial…O’Connor & Associates track apartment occupancy rates in hurricane aftermath… The attorney for Enron founder Ken Lay says two newly unsealed affidavits back Lay’s contention that Enron’s former finance chief was prepared to lie in court. In the affidavits, former Enron […]


Lay’s attorney welcomes unsealed affidavits from Andrew Fastow…Jury deliberations begin in first federal Vioxx trial…O’Connor & Associates track apartment occupancy rates in hurricane aftermath…

The attorney for Enron founder Ken Lay says two newly unsealed affidavits back Lay’s contention that Enron’s former finance chief was prepared to lie in court. In the affidavits, former Enron Finance Chief Andrew Fastow contended he could have exonerated his wife, Lea Fastow, when she faced trial on tax crime charges. Lay’s lead attorney, Mike Ramsey, calls the affidavits “a treasure” and “pretty rich fodder for cross-examination.” They pertain to the tax case to which Lea Fastow pleaded guilty and for which she served a year in federal prison. In the affidavits, Andrew Fastow said he would testify in her trial that he and his wife believed payments made to them by a former top lieutenant were paid voluntarily out of friendship. He said that would have made it not taxable income. But Fastow, himself, pleaded guilty to taking the money illegally a year later.

Jury deliberations started today in Houston in the nation’s first federal trial over the safety of Vioxx. A plaintiff’s lawyer argued earlier today that drug maker Merck hid the heart attack risks of pain reliever Vioxx to boost its profits. But a Merck lawyer says the New Jersey-based company issued adequate warnings based on studies showing Vioxx was safe. The lawsuit was filed by the widow of a man who died in 2001 after suffering a heart attack. “Dicky” Irvin of St. Augustine, Florida, was 53. The nine jurors must decide whether Merck failed to warn the doctors of a Vioxx user of the drug’s risks. They’ll also consider if the painkiller was defective and whether Merck was negligent in designing and marketing the drug.

Continental Airlines has reached an agreement with the International Association of Machinists covering the company’s flight attendants. The agreement was reached late today in talks conducted by the National Mediation Board.  The union is preparing detailed communications to its membership explaining the agreement, which is subject to ratification by the attendants.

Southwest Airlines pilots reportedly will fly one-and-a-half more hours each month under a deal the Dallas-based carrier has struck with its pilot’s union. The Southwest Airlines Pilots’ Association says that would save the airline about $4 million a year. That’s because it won’t have to hire as many pilots as it expands its schedule about ten percent a year. Southwest spokesman Ed Stewart acknowledges the agreement but declined to comment further because the airline typically doesn’t discuss its labor relations. The airline’s 4,700 pilots have flown about 67 hours a month before the November 6th deal takes effect. The union says Southwest pilots used to average about 70 hours a month a decade ago. But as the pilots have gained seniority, they’ve also earned more vacation.

Apartment owners scrambled to accommodate hurricane evacuees needing temporary shelter over the past couple of months. Richard Zigler with O’Connor & Associates has been keeping track of how that has affected occupancy rates in the city.

Richard Zigler audio 1

Costs for apartment construction had been rising even before the recent hurricanes.

Richard Zigler audio 2

Zigler says new apartment construction is finally slowing.

Richard Zigler audio 3

Zigler says there’s a concern over what will happen in the coming months, with some evacuees returning to Louisiana, but the loss in occupancy should be filled by recent job growth in the Houston area.

Energy Secretary Sam Bodman says it’s likely that Gulf Coast oil and natural gas production won’t be fully back on line till next summer. He says up to a third of those two sources remains off-line because of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Speaking to reporters at the White House, he said America’s energy infrastructure “took a real blow” from the two storms. Bodman’s renewing administration pleas for homeowners to conserve energy this winter. The Energy Department recently forecast that shortages will drive up the cost of heating natural gas homes by as much as 50 percent. Advocates for the poor have argued that $5 billion in federal assistance is needed to keep up with high prices this winter. Congress authorized that much, but has yet to approve a bill actually spending the money.

The Labor Department says the jobs-related toll from the hurricanes in recent months continues to rise. The number of Americans who’ve lost jobs because of the hurricanes rose to just under 600,000 last week. The effects of Katrina and Rita are still being felt months after slamming ashore. The Labor Department attributes 7,000 new claims last week to Katrina and Rita. Even Wilma, the last storm which hit Florida in late October, resulted in another 700 jobless claims. New claims for unemployment benefits rose by 6,000 last week to 327,000.

Former Presidents Bush and Clinton have announced $90 million worth of grants from the money they’ve raised to benefit victims of Hurricane Katrina. Higher education institutions along the Gulf Coast will receive $30 million in grants. Another $40 million will be divided among the three states hardest hit–Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. And another $20 million will go to faith-based organizations. Bush and Clinton have raised about $110 million so far. Clinton says donations have ranged from $16 from a child’s lemonade stand to corporate donations in the millions. Bush used the 64th anniversary of Pearl Harbor to exhort the hurricane-hit Gulf Coast to summon the strength to rebuild.

Department stores are still the leading shopping source for Texans, with discount stores second, according to a Scripps Howard poll published by the Houston Chronicle. The poll also says in just three months, many Texans have become significantly more optimistic about their financial futures. Many respondents cite lower gasoline prices as a reason for feeling more optimistic about their financial futures. Some 27 percent plan to spend less on Christmas shopping compared to last year, while 15 percent will spend more.

Governor Rick Perry today made a pitch for the private sector to help fund a proposed superhighway leading north from the Texas-Mexico border. Perry, during a stop in Houston, said the TTC-69 plan would connect industrial hubs in South Texas and the Midwest. The governor in 2002 unveiled his Trans Texas Corridor project outlining proposed improvements over 50 years. Perry says the interstate-quality highway corridor–with rail freight capacity–would connect the Lower Rio Grande River Valley to Interstate 37. The transportation route would continue from Corpus Christi through Houston, to northeast Texas. Perry appeared at the annual meeting of the I-69 Alliance, which is pushing for development of the corridor.

About 2,200 natural gas customers in the east Texas town of Crockett are without heat or other service today. Houston-based CenterPoint Energy says it shut down service early this morning. That was after a pressure drop was detected at a valve stand that transfers gas from a main pipeline to the system serving Crockett customers. CenterPoint spokeswoman Leticia Lowe says about 100 technicians are working to purge the gas line of any air to restore the Crockett gas line network to safe operations. She says she has no estimate of how long that might take. Temperatures were at or just below freezing in Crockett about the time the outage happened. Temperatures were expected to reach the upper 30’s today before dropping into the low 20’s tonight. Crockett is 43 miles west of Lufkin.

A West Texas gas plant exploded Wednesday night in a blast that observers say they felt and saw 20 miles away. KOSA-TV in Odessa reports that the Crane County plant was unmanned, and nobody was injured or killed. The plant is located about 20 miles southwest of Odessa. Emergency officials from across the region responded to the fire. The glow of the fire could be seen for miles.

A new study has found that Mexican immigrants in Atlanta and Dallas make more money than they do in other U.S. cities. The study findings are in a report by the Pew Hispanic Center, titled “the economic transition to America.” It says 56 percent of the those immigrants in Atlanta and Dallas earn more than the weekly median wage of $300. That makes them the “best off” of Mexican immigrants in the seven cities studied. The report’s author, Rakesh Kochhar, says construction jobs tend to pay more than other jobs, including agriculture. Migrants who earned the least lived in Fresno, California, where most worked in the fields.

Boston officials concerned about potential terrorist strikes are asking federal regulators to block a proposed natural gas pipeline. City officials want assurances that the project won’t generate more tanker traffic for Boston’s harbor. Suez-Distrigas, which operates a liquefied natural gas terminal, and Houston-based El Paso Corporation subsidiary Tennessee Gas Pipeline are seeking federal approval for a new pipeline in Middlesex and Essex Counties. Suez-Distrigas officials say they don’t expect an increase in tanker traffic. Boston’s Chief of Environment and Energy–James Hunt–today said he’d been opposed to any project that would mean more LNG ship traffic in Boston Harbor. The LNG terminal is on the Mystic River, just north of Boston. Tankers heading for the terminal must pass within one mile of downtown Boston and under the landmark Tobin Bridge.

Snack maker Frito-Lay says it will stop regular work tomorrow at its Plano headquarters to announce layoffs. The company says it will call in all 2,000 employees for meetings at which 250 of them will learn they’ve lost their jobs. The company says it is eliminating unneeded positions. Frito-Lay announced the cuts and picked the jobs to cut in early November. But a company spokesman says the individual employees will not learn their fate until tomorrow’s one-on-one meetings with supervisors. He says delaying the layoffs from November to December allowed the departing workers to be eligible for an additional round of stock options. Frito-Lay has about 46,000 employees and claims to be the nation’s largest snack maker. Most of the 250 employees who will lose their jobs tomorrow work at the Plano headquarters, although a few hold headquarters-related jobs in field offices.

Nine winners were recognized at the Offshore Energy Achievement Awards at the Hilton Americas last night. Sentinel PRO Integrated Safe System of Work–Pyrotechnics won in Health, Safety and Environment; Collegiate Council–ASME International Petroleum Technology Council was Industry Champion; Benguela Belize Project–Chevron was named Project of the Year; Dynamic Annular Pressure Control–At Balance Americas won for Emerging Innovation/Technology; WARP Fluids Technology–MI SWACO won in Well Construction; Garden Banks 783 Magnolia–ConocoPhillips won in Production/Facilities; Improvements in Deepwater Subsalt Imaging through advances in Data Acquisition–Schlumberger and Western Geco won in Geoscience; and Anneliese Kulakofsky–Halliburton and Baker Hughes won for Contribution to the Community, a new category for 2005.