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Friday April 14th, 2006

Gasoline prices continue rising and are expected to rise further this summer…Enron’s Jeff Skilling completes defense testimony, braces for cross examination…taxpayers get calendar extension for filing… Retail gasoline prices continue to soar across Texas and the nation as crude oil market prices push sharply higher. The weekly AAA Texas gas price survey shows the average […]

Gasoline prices continue rising and are expected to rise further this summer…Enron’s Jeff Skilling completes defense testimony, braces for cross examination…taxpayers get calendar extension for filing…

Retail gasoline prices continue to soar across Texas and the nation as crude oil market prices push sharply higher. The weekly AAA Texas gas price survey shows the average retail price of regular, self-serve gasoline in the state climbed 14 cents this week to $2.73 per gallon. Nationally, the average price climbed 12 cents this week to $2.72 per gallon. Auto club spokeswoman Rose Rougeau says crude prices approached the record high of $70.85 per barrel earlier this week. That’s amid concerns that shipments from Iran, Nigeria and Iraq might be jeopardized by security threats. She says motorists could expect to see higher gas prices this summer if crude prices remain near $70 per barrel. The highest average price in Texas was reported in Dallas, where the price climbed 14 cents this week to an average of $2.81 per gallon. The cheapest gas was found in Corpus Christi, where it averaged $2.65 per gallon–despite a 16-cent increase this week.

Former Enron Chief Executive Jeff Skilling struggled to hold his temper this week at being pegged a liar and a crook by federal prosecutors. Skilling told jurors in his criminal trial that he was devastated the company he cherished became a symbol for scandal. He said “they have purposely not looked at facts they should have looked at if they wanted to come to a more balanced and accurate conclusion.” His comments came as defense lawyer Daniel Petrocelli led him through the government’s indictment, which accuses him of minimizing bad news in 2001 so that investors and Wall Street would remain bullish on failing Enron ventures. Petrocelli said he’s not sure how the jury will respond to Skilling’s testimony.

“You know, I don’t like to speak for jurors. I think Mr. Skilling is himself, was himself, will always be himself, can be nothing but himself. And you saw him, and the jury saw him and they’ll make their judgments.”

Petrocelli notes the Skilling is taking responsibility for Enron’s collapse.

“Mr. Skilling has taken responsibility since day one for the failure at Enron, for the disappointment of a great company collapsing, people losing their money, people losing their jobs. He has always taken responsibility and he will always live with that responsibility.”

Skilling wrapped up a week of defense testimony, refuting the prosecution’s case that he and Enron founder Ken Lay masterminded a fraud that led to one of the biggest business scandals in U.S. history. Skilling is charged with 28 counts of fraud, conspiracy, insider trading and lying to auditors, while Lay faces six counts of fraud and conspiracy.

It may not be any easier, but taxpayers will have additional time to file their returns this year. Not only do taxpayers have two or three extra days to file, they also can ask for the first time for an automatic six-month extension. Nearly 88 million taxpayers have filed their returns, but that leaves millions more working to meet the deadline–Monday for most people. The IRS expects 9.6 million to miss the mark in April and request an automatic filing extension until October 16th. But they have to pay their taxes now. The deadline for requesting an automatic extension is the same as the tax filing deadline. The IRS this year gave taxpayers an extra weekend to finish their work because April 15th falls on a Saturday. The tax agency pushed the traditional deadline back to April 17th for most taxpayers.

A Lindale company says it fired 22 workers because they didn’t follow company policy when taking off to attend an immigration protest. Benchmark Manufacturing, which makes air conditioning parts, fired the workers after they attended a rally Monday in downtown Tyler. The company said in a statement that the workers didn’t follow rules that require them to ask for the day off or give notice that they’d be absent. But rally organizer Jose Sanchez, who’s also a Longview lawyer, says the workers may have been unaware of company policy–either because they never got employee handbooks or couldn’t read the rules in English.

Port of Galveston officials say they’ve secured a deal to bring a cruise ship with a capacity of nearly 4,000 passengers. The Voyager of the Seas will be the largest cruise ship to call the island home. The ship features an ice-skating rink, a full-size basketball court and a nine-hole miniature golf course. A spokesman for Royal Caribbean International says the ship will depart from Galveston for Caribbean cruises on a weekly basis from December 2007 to April 2008. The Wharves Board of Trustees, which oversees the Galveston port, recently agreed to spend $1.72 million to build a second loading bridge at one of its terminals. Ships the size of the Voyager require two loading bridges. Deputy Port Director Mike Mierzwa said the deal is “the culmination of a two-year effort by port staff to bring in increased-capacity ships.

Tivo has a new lease on life. An East Texas jury returned a $74 million verdict in the digital video recording pioneer’s patent lawsuit against Dish Network parent Echostar Communications. That gives struggling Tivo a welcome cash infusion, as well as new leverage to seek additional licensing revenue from the growing number of other DVR providers. Industry analyst Vamsi Sistla says that a loss in the federal court trial in Marshall “would have been the death knell for Tivo.” The analyst says the victory “gives them some breathing room to chug away and try to enter new markets.” Tivo-based DVRs currently account for less than one-third of the more than 15 million American homes that have some kind of digital video recorder box. But Forrester Research predicts that DVRs–with or without Tivo’s own branded service–will be in nearly half of the U.S. households by 2009.

KBR filed an initial public offering today to sell up to $550 million in common stock. The unit of Houston-based Halliburton is a global engineering, construction and services company. It supports energy, petrochemicals, government services and civil infrastructure sectors. Details about the number of shares offered and estimated price range for the IPO weren’t disclosed in today’s filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The company intends to use the net proceeds from the IPO to repay debt owed to Halliburton Energy Services and for working capital and other general corporate purposes.

Samsung Electronics plans to invest $220 million in a new semi-conductor facility in Austin. The move will add 900 people to the company’s workforce there. The world’s biggest manufacturer of memory chips also has been awarded a $10.8 million grant from the Texas Enterprise Fund. Samsung already has 1,250 employees in Austin. A Samsung spokeswoman says the new facility should be in operation in late 2007. Governor Rick Perry says terms of the agreement with the Texas Enterprise Fund call for the creation of 900 new jobs, including 300 on-site contractors. The governor’s office said the new facility will manufacture semi-conductor chips. Samsung previously began a $500 million upgrade and expansion of its Austin plant in 2003. The Texas Enterprise Fund was created by the legislature to help lure jobs to Texas. Samsung said in a release that the investment would increase the competitiveness of the Samsung facilities in Austin.

The number of rigs actively exploring for oil and natural gas in the United States this week increased by 31 to 1,610. Houston-based Baker Hughes reports that of the rigs running nationwide, 1,349 were exploring for gas and 259 for oil. Two are listed as miscellaneous. A year ago, the rig count was 1,348. Baker Hughes has kept track of the count since 1944. The tally peaked at 4,530 in 1981 at the height of the oil boom. Several record lows were set in 1999, bottoming out at 488. Of the major oil- and gas-producing states, Texas gained 13 rigs.

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