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Tuesday January 24th, 2006

Judge rules Enron trial will go on in Monday in Houston, as scheduled…W&T Offshore pays $1.3 billion for Kerr-McGee’s Gulf of Mexico shelf properties…Port of Houston sees another record year in tonnage and revenues… Enron founder Ken Lay and former CEO Jeffrey Skilling will go to trial in the scandal-ridden company’s hometown of Houston. U.S. […]

Judge rules Enron trial will go on in Monday in Houston, as scheduled…W&T Offshore pays $1.3 billion for Kerr-McGee’s Gulf of Mexico shelf properties…Port of Houston sees another record year in tonnage and revenues…

Enron founder Ken Lay and former CEO Jeffrey Skilling will go to trial in the scandal-ridden company’s hometown of Houston. U.S. District Judge Sim Lake ruled late yesterday against the former executives’ last-minute request to move the trial from Houston. The defense contended potential jurors’ vitriolic statements about Lay and Skilling on questionnaires showed that seating an impartial jury in Houston was unlikely. The judge said he wasn’t persuaded by the defense arguments. Rather, Lake said some questionnaires contained unbiased answers. He also intends to question the pool during jury selection next Monday. He says that provides adequate safeguards. Skilling is charged with fraud, conspiracy, insider trading and lying to auditors. Lay is charged with fraud and conspiracy. Both say they’re innocent. About 150 people from the original 400 remain in the jury pool that will report on Monday morning.

Lay and Skilling have repeated their request to postpone next week’s fraud and conspiracy trial. Defense attorneys say prosecution attempts to streamline the indictments without a Grand Jury’s okay isn’t good enough. Prosecutors intend to drop four of 35 counts against Skilling and remove references to former top Enron accountant Richard Causey. Causey pleaded guilty last month to securities fraud and will cooperate with prosecutors.

A Web site has gathered e-mail sent by Enron employees, searchable by keywords or categories. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission released the company’s cache of some half-million employee e-mails, and they’re available on the InBoxer Web site. The site used the Enron database as an example for using its e-mail security product. Electronic discovery software company MetaLINCS is also offering a search of Enron e-mails at its Web site with an online downloadable application.

Houston-based W&T Offshore is paying $1.3 billion for Oklahoma City-based Kerr-McGee’s shelf properties in the Gulf of Mexico. The properties are in waters less than 1,000 feet from near Corpus Christi to Mobile, Alabama. W&T is assuming responsibility for another $135 million in platform abandonment liabilities.

The Port of Houston saw another record year in tonnage and revenues in 2005, reaching almost $155 million last year. That’s a 16 percent increase from the previous year, primarily attributable to strong growth in container traffic. Executive Director Tom Kornegay says the port has seen a year-over-year increase in revenue for ten of the past 11 years. The new Bayport container terminal under construction is slated to open in August. The port commission authorized several Bayport-related contracts at its regular Monday meeting, including a $590,000 contract to Kirksey Architects to design the administration and gate building, adjoining parking, service roads and utilities. A $836,000 contract for designing the maintenance and repair building for the terminal was awarded to Hermes Architects. A $587,250 contract for a gate control system for the terminal was given to L.A. King Company.

Low interest rates and the attractiveness of real estate compared to other investments helped fuel a rush of investors on Houston’s apartment market throughout 2005, according to the latest Houston Apartment Performance Update from O’Connor & Associates. More than 200 properties traded hands over the course of the year, with most activity in Southwest Houston, the Champions/FM1960 area and the Inner Loop. The report says as job growth in the Medical Center and downtown and the Galleria continues to expand, residential acquisition prospects will only get brighter.

Gulf Coast states recovering from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita will share $868 million for road and bridge projects. The federal funding was announced by Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta. Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast in late August. Rita made landfall September 24th in Southeast Texas. Mississippi will receive $740 million, Louisiana gets $75 million, Florida will have $42 million and Texas is in line for $11 million. The money will be used for roadway repairs based on formal requests already received from the states. In most cases the feds will pay for 100 percent of the work. The funding was included in an emergency relief package requested by President Bush and approved by Congress late last year.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved a $6.1 million Public Assistance grant to the state of Texas to reimburse the Trinity river Authority for repairs to the Livingston Dam site. The grant will be used for engineering and contract costs associated with repairs to the upper face of the dam as a result of Hurricane Rita.

Non-profit Lutheran Social Services has received a $50,000 grant through the Houston Katrina/Rita Fund to continue its Houston-area disaster response. Half of the grant will assist evacuees in Houston with basic necessities, counseling and mental health services, and the other half will help underwrite expenses incurred when Houston-area foster children with primary medical needs were evacuated during Hurricane Rita.

Some Hurricane Katrina evacuees face possible eviction from their rental housing because the Dallas Housing Authority has not paid their December rent. Housing Authority officials say the rental voucher program has been overwhelmed by more than 6,500 applications. But they said participants’ rent will be covered, and they asked for patience. Under the program, evacuees receive a voucher to cover their rent and utilities through February. The Housing Authority then makes payments directly to the landlords. Housing Authority spokeswoman Michelle Raglon said extra staff members have been hired to speed the process. Incorrect paperwork from apartment managers has caused some of the delay, she said. In the meantime, housing advocates say they’ve received numerous calls from hurricane evacuees who have been warned by landlords that they could be evicted for the tardy December rent.

The Port Arthur city council has ordered business owners to either pick up debris from Hurricane Rita on their property–or face hefty fines. Officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers say many of the worst debris-related eyesores from Rita are from business owners not cleaning up. The Port Arthur News reports the city will begin issuing citations to property owners and taking them to court if they fail to comply with the cleanup.

Jury selection has begun in a Starr County State District Court in the fourth Vioxx-related trial against the drugmaker Merck and company. Legal experts say attorneys for the Vioxx-maker may face their biggest challenge in the trial in the impoverished border county in the Rio Grande Valley. They say Starr County is in one of the most plaintiff-friendly regions in the country. Those picked for the jury may decided if 71-year-old Leonel garza’s fatal 2001 heart attack resulted from 23 years of heart disease or about three weeks of taking Vioxx for arm pain. The New Jersey pharmaceutical giant Merck faces hundreds of lawsuits from people who took the once-popular painkiller Vioxx before it was pulled from the market in September 2004. That was when a study showed it could double risk of heart attack or stroke if taken for 18 months or longer. However, Merck says no such risk has been shown for shorter periods. Plaintiff attorneys say the company knew of the risks and decided to sell its inventory anyway.

Occidental Petroleum’s Mukhaizna unit has awarded a two-year, $40 million multi-service contract to Houston-based Halliburton for the Mukhaizna Field in Oman. Halliburton will provide fluid services, cementing, casing attachments, directional drilling, mud logging, reservoir coring and completion tools.

Massachusetts-based Verano has acquired Houston-based PlantData Technologies, according to the Houston Business Journal, making a combined company of 60 employees. PlantData installs systems to monitor the internal controls and network security of utilities and process manufacturing companies. Both firms sell plant-monitoring and security systems for use by energy and water utilities, oil and chemical companies and transportation organizations.

The U.S. Department of Labor has sued Texas Liqua Tech Services to recover $30,413 in back wages for 13 former and current employees. The company installs and waterproofs commercial roofs.>

How would you like to check in for your flight before you get to the airport? If you fly Southwest Airlines you can do that even if you’re on the road and away from your computer. All you need is a web-enabled mobile device, such as a Blackberry or a cell phone. Once you find the Web site, you enter a confirmation number and the first and last name of one of the passengers listed in the reservation. Then when you get to the airport, just go to the nearest “rapid check-in kiosk” to print the boarding pass. The system will recognize that you’ve already checked in for the flight and will print a boarding pass. Southwest says tests of the system have been positive.

Texas Instruments saw a 34 percent jump in quarterly income on strong sales of chips for mobile phones and electronic devices. TI says it earned $655 million. That fell short of Wall Street expectations. And the Dallas-based leading maker of computer chips for mobile phones is offering a tepid outlook for the start of 2006. The quarterly earnings included $17 million for stock-based compensation, which analysts typically exclude from their forecasts. Analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial had expecting TI to earn 42 cents per share in the October-December period. Revenue rose 14 percent to $3.59 billion. That’s short of analysts’ sales forecast of $3.64 billion. Texas Instruments says it expects first-quarter sales of $3.11 billion to $3.38 billion. That short of analysts’ forecast of $3.46 billion.

Kimberly-Clark today reports fourth-quarter earnings tumbled 17 percent as one-time costs cut into profits, offsetting higher revenue. Earnings fell to $371.1 million. Sales edged up three percent to $4.01 billion, which is shy of Wall Street expectations of $4.07 billion. Minus one-time items, the Irving-based paper products maker says its fourth-quarter earnings per share would have increased three percent to 95 cents per share. That matches expectations of the Wall Street analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial. For the full year, Kimberly-Clark’s earnings fell 13 percent to $1.57 billion. Annual earnings from continuing operations fell 11 percent to $1.58 billion. Full-year 2005 sales increased five percent to 15.9 billion.

Annual increases in property appraisals prompted Lubbock officials to offset those hikes with tax rate reductions. It’s a concept that intrigues a panel charged with finding ways to overhaul the Texas school funding system. The Texas Tax Reform Commission convened yesterday in Lubbock. Members also will meet Thursday in Laredo and Friday in Weslaco. City Councilman Gary Boren told commission members that when existing property values rose–the city council lowered its rate. Boren says Lubbock leaders believe there’s a “clear” relationship between tax burdens and the city’s economic health. He says that concept could be applied statewide. Perry is expected to call a special legislative session this spring on school finance. The Texas Supreme Court has set a June 1st deadline for lawmakers to fix the school funding system.

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