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Wednesday March 29th, 2006

FAA assessing Venezuela’s aviation safety…Former Rice University president elected chairman of BioHouston…Costs going up at all nine University of Texas undergraduate campuses… U.S. aviation officials today say they’re in the last stages of assessing the safety of Venezuela’s airline industry. The Federal Aviation Administration audit may determine whether the Venezuelan government bans U.S. commercial airlines […]

FAA assessing Venezuela’s aviation safety…Former Rice University president elected chairman of BioHouston…Costs going up at all nine University of Texas undergraduate campuses…

U.S. aviation officials today say they’re in the last stages of assessing the safety of Venezuela’s airline industry. The Federal Aviation Administration audit may determine whether the Venezuelan government bans U.S. commercial airlines from flying to the South American country. Venezuela has said it would prohibit all flights by Houston-based Continental Airlines and Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines. It also would restrict flights by Fort Worth-based American Airlines. The FAA imposed a Category Two safety rating on Venezuela in 1995. That barred Venezuelan airlines from flying their own planes to the United States or from launching new services here. Venezuela contends the FAA safety-based restrictions are no longer justified after improvements to airline safety and regulation.

Former Rice University president Malcolm Gillis has been elected chairman of the board of BioHouston. Since 2004, the membership of the biotechnology industry organization has increased by 25 percent, and the number of programs and events the organization puts on annually has doubled. Gillis sees future growth in science-based industries, but also a need to get the word out.

“In the institutions of the Texas Medical Center–and that would be M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Baylor College of Medicine, the UT Health Science Center, and of course the two big hospitals, as well as UTMB down in Galveston, plus University of Houston and Rice–this is where all the really fascinating innovations have been occurring. And Houston needs to capitalize on this.”

Gillis says biotechnology, nanotechnology and information technology have converged.

“Much of biology is an information science, okay? And that’s because of all that’s been going on in genetics, you know, with a couple of hundred-thousand genes and three- to four-hundred thousand proteins, all interacting in different ways, there’s no way of understanding these without really, really complicated high-speed computational power.”

Gillis says BioHouston has to communicate what’s going on in Houston-area research.

“We’ve got to do a better job of articulating what’s going on in the several innovating institutions. People simply aren’t aware of what’s going on at U of H or Rice or the institutions of the Texas Medical Center. When you put it all together, it is really stunning. But we don’t have a lot to show for it. We’re trying to get people married. We’re trying to marry different constituencies. You gotta have managers. You gotta have people who can run a business enterprise, who can deal with all of the increasing problems of trying to comply with Sarbanes-Oxley and all this other stuff from the government.”

BioHouston was incorporated in 2001 by Houston-area academic, research and healthcare institutions, area economic development organizations and for-profit entities.

Enron founder Ken Lay says he’s “looking forward to getting on the stand” and getting his case “out there.”

“I think Mr. Ramsey pretty much said it all, but we’re looking forward to getting our case, get on the stand and get our case out there. Get the positive case, now.”

Federal prosecutors in Houston rested their case yesterday in the fraud and conspiracy trial of Lay and former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling. Both are expected to testify when Enron begins its defense, starting Monday. The judge has dropped one of seven charges against Lay, and three out of 31 counts against Skilling. The dismissals came at the request of prosecutors who didn’t present evidence on those counts.

The Securities & Exchange Commission has settled with two former Enron employees accused of fraud to manipulate earnings. Former accountant David LaBoe and attorney Dale Rasmussen agreed to pay fines of $30,000 each without admitting or denying allegations. The money will go into a fund for Enron shareholders.

A co-founder of Tivo today testified the company at first shared details of its technology with Dish Network. Former chief executive Michael Ramsey took the stand in Marshall in Tivo’s patent-infringement lawsuit against Echostar Communications–the parent of Dish Network. Ramsey says Tivo sued the satellite provider after it began selling Tivo-like boxes that can pause and rewind live television programs. Morgan Chu, a lawyer for Tivo, said Dish Network’s action partly explains why Tivo has never made a profit–despite its popular set-top box that has changed the way Americans watch television. Chu made the comments at the beginning of Tivo’s patent-infringement lawsuit against Dish Network parent Echostar Communications. Tivo is seeking unspecified damages, but an opposing lawyer says the company was asking the federal jury to award it more than $100 million. Tivo spent years pursuing a deal in which Dish Network would pay it for using its set-top boxes, similar to an agreement that Tivo has with DirecTV. An Echostar attorney says Dish Network invented its own digital video recorder and uses different technology than the Tivo box.

It’s going to cost more to attend all nine University of Texas undergraduate campuses. Regents okayed a tuition hike because the schools need more money to deal with rising energy bills, to recruit and retain top professors and to make up for state funding. By the fall of 2007, tuition at the flagship Austin campus will average $4,100 per semester for Texas residents. That’s about 50 percent more than students were paying three years ago, when lawmakers gave university officials the authority to set a portion of tuition rates. The plan approved yesterday also would increase the amount of financial aid universities can offer to help offset rising tuition rates.

Newly-released documents indicate that federal auditors castigated Halliburton repeatedly for failing to control costs, according to the Houston Chronicle. The Houston-based company was criticized in government documents from 2004 and 2005 for failing to adequately justify its billings when working to rebuild Iraq’s southern oil industry. The documents detail possible overcharges, billing problems and delays associated with Halliburton’s $1.2 billion contract to repair pipelines, increase power generation and boost oil production.

EGL said the army lifted a suspension on it after a former executive pleaded guilty to fraudulently collecting “war risk surcharges” for Iraq flights. EGL manages freight shipments for companies and the government, and the charges concerned flights of military equipment from the United Arab Emirates to Baghdad. The Houston-based company was a subcontractor for Halliburton.

Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco used a forum of Gulf of Mexico governors to criticize the feds for not sharing more offshore drilling revenues. Blanco yesterday repeated a threat to block leases off the Louisiana coast unless her state gets more of the money. Blanco told the conference in Corpus Christi that devastation to the Louisiana coast from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita could have been minimized by wetlands restoration. She wants federal funds to pay for the restoration. Governor Rick Perry says he called the summit, which runs through tomorrow, because the U.S. and Mexican Gulf states share a lot more than coastline. Perry says that point was brought home by last year’s hurricanes.

The government is telling automakers to start churning out pickup trucks, SUVs and vans that get better mileage than current models do. New fuel-economy rules covering 2008 through 2011 models are being announced today. The new rules represent the most significant changes to the corporate average fuel economy system in three decades and will affect automakers’ product lineups. They come amid growing public concern about U.S. dependence on foreign sources of oil and rising pump prices. Saying the U.S. is ”addicted to oil,” President Bush has called for a 75-percent reduction in Mideast oil imports by 2025. The new rules do not apply to passenger cars, which already have a 27-and-a-half-mile-per-gallon requirement. Environmentalists say the rules aren’t tough enough.

The Dallas City Council is supporting a plan to convert an office tower into an apartment project for homeless and low-income residents. The council pledged financial support for the downtown project yesterday. Some community members expressed concern about the project’s location. It will be near the city’s arts district and across the street from a 700-student school. Central Dallas Ministries plans to convert the building into 209 units. Some of the efficiency apartments will rent for as low as $348. Fifty of them will be set aside for the homeless. The non-profit will seek a mix of public and private funding for the $23.6 million project. The council agreed to provide up to $1 million from a November bond election for the homeless and $750,000 in community development block grants. A director of the project says it will not be a homeless shelter or transitional housing.