Thursday January 5th, 2006

Attorneys for Lay and Skilling question whether a fair trial can happen in Houston, based on jury questionnaires…Mayor Bill White optimistic about Houston’s 2006 business outlook…MMS says offshore production platform hurricane damage so far have cost one-fifth of Gulf’s normal annual oil production… Attorneys for Enron founder Kenneth Lay and former CEO Jeff Skilling are […]

Attorneys for Lay and Skilling question whether a fair trial can happen in Houston, based on jury questionnaires…Mayor Bill White optimistic about Houston’s 2006 business outlook…MMS says offshore production platform hurricane damage so far have cost one-fifth of Gulf’s normal annual oil production…

Attorneys for Enron founder Kenneth Lay and former CEO Jeff Skilling are saying the men can’t get a fair trial in Houston. The lawyers cite answers given by potential jurors on questionnaires in anticipation of the fraud and conspiracy trial. A filing in Houston says prospective jurors called Skilling a “high-class crook,” who “would lie to his mother if it would further his cause.” The filing noted some of the potential jurors called Lay “the biggest lying crook of all.” Lay and Skilling face trial January 30th. The defense wants to postpone the trial until late February and do new questionnaires after last week’s guilty plea from ex-Enron Chief Accounting Officer Richard Causey. No word yet on when the judge will rule. The judge also denied Skilling’s request to bar prosecutors from using testimony he gave the Securities and Exchange Commission about a 2001 stock trade. The U.S. Justice Department alleges that Skilling deliberately deceived an SEC investigation into his part in Enron’s collapse in a December 6th, 2001 deposition.

The Portland, Oregon, city council has expanded its investigation into income tax payments and wholesale power trading by Portland General Electric. The time frame is since PGE was purchased by Enron eight years ago. The four commissioners and Mayor Tom Potter have unanimously authorized the city attorney to request extensive information on both issues. PGE officials repeatedly have said the methods used to calculate taxes and account for power trades were appropriate. Portland and PGE have been battling over income taxes sent to Enron, which declared bankruptcy in late 2001. City commissioners remain unconvinced that PGE sent all the collected taxes to Enron.

Royal Dutch Shell have agreed to a $300,000 settlement of charges that two subsidiaries, including one in Houston, engaged in sham crude oil futures trades on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Former futures desk head Nigel Catterall of Sugar Land will pay $100,000. Houston-based Shell Trading and London-based Shell International Trading and Shipping will pay $200,000 to settle with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

Mayor Bill White says he’s optimistic about Houston’s business outlook in 2006. Despite challenges brought on by the hurricanes, the city’s economy has shown progress for the second year in a row. Employment has grown by 1.8 percent in the past year, with 40,000 new jobs since October 2004.

Mayor Bill White audio

Administaff founder Paul Sarvadi says his company’s fourth-quarter Business Confidence Survey shows optimism.

Paul Sarvadi audio

IBC-Houston President and CEO Jay Rogers expects to see continued growth of small businesses in 2006.

Jay Rogers audio

Mayor White cites attitude changes at City Hall that he says make Houston more business-friendly.

Damage to offshore production platforms in the Gulf of Mexico from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita so far have cost the region one-fifth of its normal annual oil production. Platforms were first evacuated August 26th in anticipation of Katrina, then Rita made landfall September 24th. Since then, the Minerals Management Service says the Gulf has lost 111.6 million barrels of oil production–20.4 percent of the region’s normal annual production of 547.5 million barrels. The shut-downs also have delayed production of 574.2 billion cubic feet of natural gas. The agency indicated it may be some time before storm damage is fully repaired. At the height of the platform evacuations in September, 95 percent of the Gulf’s daily oil production and 88 percent of its gas were shut off.

The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits last week declined to to the lowest level in more than five years. Today’s report from the Labor Department is fresh evidence suggesting the national economy has largely shaken off the impacts of last year’s devastating hurricanes. New applications for unemployment benefits dropped by 35,000 to 291,000. That’s the lowest total since September 2000, when the economy was in the final months of the longest economic expansion in history. Tomorrow, the government is scheduled to deliver the December unemployment numbers. Analysts are looking for about 200,000 jobs added to payrolls and a steady unemployment rate at five percent.

The availability of online jobs declined a bit last month. The Monster Employment Index was down four points from November to 145. Every state and most occupations showed lower levels of online job recruitment. The decline ends a four-month growth trend but the index is still 32 points higher than it was year ago. Monster Worldwide says the December decline was probably due to seasonal factors, since many employers had already filled holiday-related temporary jobs. The company says despite last month’s dip, almost all industries, occupations and regions show much higher levels of online job availability than a year ago, which bodes well for job seekers this year.

Downsizing has been on the upswing. A new report shows employers were wielding the job-cutting ax more aggressively last month. Outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas says there were nearly 108,000 job cuts announced in December. That was up more than eight percent from the previous month. It was the fourth straight monthly increase. Challenger says for all of 2005, announced cuts rose three percent to nearly 1.1 million. It’s the first time since 2001 that annual job cuts were on the rise. Putting pressure on employers, Challenger says governments and the private sector are struggling to pay for pension costs. Another reason for concern over the outlook is said to be an expected slowdown in the housing market.

A judge in El Paso has approved a Labor Department settlement with workers whose jobs were outsourced to foreign countries. The workers claimed they were denied vocational training guaranteed them by federal law. The agreement will provide $6.5 million for job training programs for Spanish-speaking workers in El Paso. The suit claimed the workers were provided only remedial English classes after losing their jobs in the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement. It also means policy changes for displaced workers across the country. The agreement reached December 29th was approved yesterday in federal court in El Paso. Public Citizen and Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid represented displaced workers from the Association of Border Workers in El Paso. Labor Department officials weren’t immediately available for comment.

Some employers in Longview have agreed to start taking a look at the high school transcripts of job applicants. About 50 Longview businesses plan to start requiring the transcripts from job applicants as a way to emphasize the importance of a good high school record. Among them is Josh Durden, an independent agent with State Farm Insurance. Durden told the Longview News-Journal that he decided to join the “Ask for Transcript” program because “your past predicts your future.” The Longview partnership’s Education/Work Force Committee plans to meet this month to discuss recruitment efforts for the transcript program. The partnership has about 1,100 members.

Washington state officials have hired a Seattle auditing firm to review how workers compensation claims are handled at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Workers in June asked the state to review complaints that injured workers’ claims were mishandled by Contract Claims Services Incorporated. The U.S. Energy Department, which owns Hanford, had hired the Irving company to oversee its worker’s comp program. Some workers have complained about long delays in getting payments or having to hire lawyers to ensure their claims were processed. The auditing firm Miller and Miller will begin a three-month review of the program, beginning this month and ending with a final report due March 31st. The latest claims are separate from compensation claims that workers may have filed as a result of exposure to radioactive or toxic substances while working at nuclear weapons plants in the Cold War era.

Houston-based wireless tower operator Crown Castle International will offer live mobile television this year through its Modeo subsidiary, targeting cell phone users. The service is expected to start in the Houston area by the end of 2007. The company plans to deliver live mobile TV to 30 top U.S. markets over the next two years. The subscription service will cost between $15 and $20 monthly for video and audio capabilities, and less than $10 a month for audio only. Crown Castle wants to provide the world’s first mobile broadcast network to support podcasting.

Supply executives say the nation’s services sector grew more rapidly last month. The Institute for Supply Management says its Non-Manufacturing Index rose to 59.8 last month. That’s up more than a point from November. Any number above 50 indicates growth. The report was issued by Ralph Kauffman, chairman of the ISM Non-Manufacturing Business Survey Committee and coordinator of the Supply Chain Management Program at the University of Houston-Downtown. This is the 33rd consecutive month of increased activity. The group says employment activity is picking up. Concern about the high level of energy prices eased, but the impact of those prices was still being felt.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Boardhas posted three new videos on its Web site on the hazards of sodium hydrosulfide and combustible dust. The video includes a narrated animation of the accident at the BP Texas city refinery in March 2005.

It was a good Christmas for online retailers as they met market expectations for sales growth. Several firms track online sales and the estimates of sales increase vary by organization. Comscore Networks estimates that non-travel online spending was up 25 percent, excluding auctions. Visa USA Spendtrak reports online sales on Visa-branded payment cards rose almost 34 percent during November and December. Stifel Nicolaus says Amazon and eBay had a solid season, helped by their large sizes. An analyst at the firm says Amazon improved its customer service through programs such as Amazon Prime, which let customers order later in the season and still receive their products in time. And, while eBay had a difficult fourth quarter in 2004, it made some strategic changes to its business–including its fee structure–to improve its competitive position.

Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, says December sales at stores open at least a year rose 2.2 percent. That falls short of Wall Street expectations for a 2.4-percent increase. Looking ahead, the company expects so-called same-store sales in the U.S. this month to rise three to five percent. Those with stronger showings include Target, Costco, Nordstrom and teen retailers such as Abercrombie and Fitch. One leading retail analyst says the numbers show that ”the consumer is very selective.”

An analysis by Washington, D.C.-based Institute for America’s Future says Wal-Mart sucked $20.3 billion out of local economies during the holiday season. The group claims that means a loss of billions in wages and benefits paid, lost purchases of inventory, supplies and services from other local businesses, lost tax revenues to local government and lost contributions to local charities. The group says $100 spent in locally-owned businesses provides $44.60 to the local economy, while large retail chains only give back $14.10 to local communities.

A subsidiary of Houston-based Pioneer has sold a manufacturing site in Tacoma, Washington to Mariana Properties, according to the Houston Business Journal, resulting in about a $4.5 million reduction in its environmental reserves. The subsidiary previously used the site as a terminal and chlor-alkali manufacturing facility. Pioneer ended using the site in 2002 because of increased power costs, as well as declining regional demand for chlorine and caustic soda.

Houston-based Comfort Systems USA has sold two of its operations to Automated Logic, a unit of United Technologies. The operations are in Texas and Minnesota. Comfort Systems says it will report an after-tax estimated gain on the transaction during the fourth quarter of 2005 of about $9 million as discontinued operations. Comfort Systems designs, installs and fine-tunes control systems for high-rises, hospitals, universities and hotels, and has 54 locations in 38 cities around the nation.

Blackstone Group and Hewlett-Packard are reportedly mulling a buyout of Computer Sciences Corporation. The Wall Street Journal says the discussions are preliminary and it is unclear how much they’d be willing to pay for the computer outsourcing company.

Auditors are questioning a $20 million, two-year revenue shortfall at the agency that oversees Dallas Love Field. The shortfall at the Dallas Aviation Department led to a cut in the city-owned airport’s bond rating. The lower bond rating could make borrowing more expensive for the city or the airport, which is home to Southwest Airlines. City staffers say the department is financially healthy–even though spending outpaced revenue by $20 million in 2003 and 2004. The Federal Aviation Administration requires airports to keep a surplus fund, and city financial statements showed a cash surplus of nearly $49 million at the end of fiscal 2004. But the rating agency Standard and Poor’s says the department’s unrestricted cash totals just over $14 million. Critics of Southwest Airlines have charged that the carrier doesn’t pay enough for landing fees at Love Field.

Shirts, hats, cups and other burnt orange colored items proclaiming the University of Texas Longhorns as national champions are hot items for sale today. UT last night knocked off USC 41-to-38 in the Rose Bowl. Hours later, stores and Web sites already were offering souvenirs lauding UT. Some web sites advertised “huge selection of championship apparel” or “featured items” to help celebrate UT’s victory. Other items available via one Web site––included Texas champion window stickers, vinyl decals, blankets and clocks.

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