Thursday June 22nd, 2006

British bankers given a week to appeal against extradition for Enron-related charges…Resentencing of Dynegy executive delayed…EPA investigating possible air pollution violations at BP Texas City refinery… Three British bankers wanted in Houston on Enron-related fraud charges have been given a week by the Home Office to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights against […]

British bankers given a week to appeal against extradition for Enron-related charges…Resentencing of Dynegy executive delayed…EPA investigating possible air pollution violations at BP Texas City refinery…

Three British bankers wanted in Houston on Enron-related fraud charges have been given a week by the Home Office to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights against their extradition. The British High Court rejected their appeal to block their extradition in February, and the House of Lords on Wednesday said it would not hear their case. David Birmingham, Gary Mulgrew and Giles Darby are former executives at Greenwich NatWest, charged in 2002 with bilking National Westminster Bank of $7.3 million. They each face seven counts of wire fraud. They are accused of advising NatWest in 2000 to sell part of an Enron business it owned for less than it was worth. The scheme was allegedly devised by former Enron finance chief Andy Fastow and his colleague Michael Kopper. Prosecutors say they subsequently left NatWest, bought into the firm and sold it off for a much higher fee, making about $2.6 million each in the process. The three men had argued in the High Court that most of the alleged offenses took place in Britain and that any trial should be held here. They say having to stand trial in Houston would be unjust and incompatible with European Human Rights law.

A federal judge in Houston has delayed the resentencing of former Dynegy executive Jamie Olis until September 12th. All sides get more time to do detailed reports. The Olis case could provide insight into how the judge will approach the October 23rd sentencing of Enron founder Ken Lay and former CEO Jeff Skilling. Lay last month was convicted of six counts of fraud and conspiracy. Skilling was convicted of 19 of 28 counts of fraud, conspiracy, insider trading and lying to auditors. Judge Sim Lake had intended to re-sentence Olis before Lay and Skilling’s trial began. Olis has served two years of his 24-year sentence for fraud and conspiracy stemming from his help in pushing through a bogus 2001 deal. An appeals court last fall threw out his prison term.

The Environmental Protection Agency is investigating possible violations of air pollution rules at the BP Texas City refinery. A March 2005 explosion at the unit killed 15 people and left about 170 hurt. EPA spokeswoman Cynthia Fanning says the matter is under enforcement review. Investigative requests were sent to London-based BP last year and in April. The agency documents were obtained by Dow Jones Newswires, which reports the refinery may be allowing large amounts of benzene to evaporate from its wastewater plant. BP spokesman Ronnie Chappell says company officials believe the enhanced biodegradation units at the refinery are working. He says they’re effectively removing benzene from refinery waste streams. Chappell says the refinery will do tests requested by the EPA once its waste treatment plant is running at full capacity.

San Antonio’s Tower of the Americas restaurant has been reopened after $13 million in renovations. The tower and observation deck impressed Landry’s Restaurants CEO Tilman Fertitta back in 1968, when it was first opened as part of Hemisfair.

“You know, it did. In 1968, gosh, I was probably ten years old, and you know, it’s so unbelievable, and when I saw that we would have the opportunity to take this over, it’s just something that I really wanted to do. And what we’ve created here is going to make it the most unbelievable tower in North America, with the 4-D ride at the bottom and the observation deck that’s an educational area, and we took an icon in San Antonio and we feel like we took it to another level, and I think all the citizens of San Antonio and Texas are really gonna be proud of what we created here.”

The tower is on giant concrete pillar, and Fertitta said it was a challenge to renovate it for his revolving Eyes of Texas restaurant.

“Anytime you’re building something 750 feet up in the air it’s like trying to build something on an island, but more difficult, ’cause you just have two ten-by-ten elevators to do it!”

As for the menu…

“It’s a southwestern flair, but then also we took some of the best items off of our Pesce and Lagrillia and Vic’n’Anthony’s menus, as well as some of our other fine dining restaurants across the country. It’s an unbelievable fine dining restaurant.”

A multisensory theater and other attractions have been built around the tower base. Landry’s now owns and operates some 300 restaurants nationwide, including a Landry’s Seafood House, Joe’s Crab Shack and Rainforest Cafe on the Riverwalk. The tower will employ about 400 workers.

El Paso Corporation has announced plans to build a huge underground natural gas storage facility in southern Arizona. The Houston-based company says it’ll spend $100 million to build the facility near Eloy, Arizona, between Phoenix and Tucson. It’ll consist of four storage caverns to be created within an existing salt bed more than 1,600 feet below ground. El Paso says the facility is needed to meet rapidly growing demand in Tucson and Phoenix for natural gas. It expects to file an application for project approval with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in the third quarter of 2007. Subject to federal and state regulatory approval, construction could begin in 2008.

The Labor Department says the number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose by 11,000 last week, the biggest increase in five weeks. That puts claims at a seasonally-adjusted level of 308,000. Analysts are on guard for signs that the economy will see slower growth in the months ahead, between rising interest rates and high energy costs. The four-week moving average of claims fell by 5,000 to more than 311,000.

A new survey shows black and white Americans differ in their expectations about retirement and have different strategies. To begin with, the latest Ariel-Schwab Black Investor Survey finds blacks have less saved for retirement than whites–$59,000 versus $93,000 for their white counterparts. In addition, more blacks than whites participate in employer pension plans and, while large numbers of both groups worry about the health of those plans, fewer blacks say they’re concerned about their retirement. The survey also finds blacks plan to retire earlier and are exploring different strategies for their retirement years, such as investing in real estate or opening a business.

AT&T is changing its privacy policy for Internet and television customers. The policy, which takes effect Friday, will specify that account information is a business record the company owns and can be disclosed to government authorities and to protect “legitimate business interests.” AT&T says the account information includes the customer’s name, address, telephone number and e-mail address as well as information about the customer’s services. But the company says it doesn’t include usage information, such as how a person uses the Web or what programs a person watches through the company’s TV service. The old policy didn’t specifically call the account information business records owned by the company. But AT&T says it was implied. Under the new policy, customers must agree to it before using the company’s broadband and TV service.

All four Swift beef packing plants will be included in inspections by Japanese teams as a condition for lifting Japan’s ban on U.S. beef imports. The list includes one in Texas–in the panhandle town of Cactus. The other swift plants are in: Greeley, Colorado; Hyrum, Utah; and Grand Island, Nebraska. Japan this week agreed to lift the import ban, pending the inspections of Swift and other American meat processing plants. Swift spokesman Sean McHugh says the company looks look forward to providing former customers in Japan with safe, high quality American beef. American beef shipments to Japan resumed in December after a two-year ban. But the shipments were halted again early this year after Japanese officials found backbone in a veal shipment, which Tokyo considers a risk for Mad Cow disease.

Governor Rick Perry has asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture for drought relief for 24 counties. A statement issued today by Perry’s office says the USDA already has approved Perry’s request for help for 14 counties–Armstrong, Bosque, Brewster, Calhoun, Frio, Gillespie, Hamilton, Johnson, McLennan, Oldham, Potter, Runnels, Taylor and Terrell. Requests are still awaiting USDA approval for ten other counties–Dimmit, Duval, Kenedy, Kleberg, La Salle, Live Oak, Mason, McMullen, Nolan and Pecos. Farmers and ranchers in those areas have been suffering through a severe drought since the first of the year. Texas, as a whole, has endured very dry conditions since April of last year. Perry’s statement says that’s caused nearly $1.5 billion in losses to state agriculture. Qualified farmers and ranchers in counties approved for assistance would be eligible for low-interest emergency loans from the USDA Farm Service Agency. Producers could borrow up to 100 percent of actual production for physical losses–up to $500,000.

British and U.S. agencies are said to be investigating alleged price-fixing by British Airways and other carriers on passenger fares and fuel surcharges. That’s the word from British Airways, which says it is cooperating with the U.S. Justice Department and authorities in England. Two other airlines–Britain’s Virgin Atlantic and Fort Worth-based American Airlines–say they’re cooperating with the investigation. American says it’s received a “federal grand jury subpoena in connection with a government investigation into alleged price fixing in the air passenger industry.” American says it was told that it is not a target of the probe. In February, more than a dozen airlines were drawn into a widening investigation by U.S. and European Union officials of suspected collusion in the air cargo industry to fix prices on surcharges for fuel, security and insurance. European and U.S. officials refused to provide details about the probe.

A female forklift operator who took her sexual harassment case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court is walking away a winner. Sheila White sued employer Burlington Northern Santa Fe. A short time later, the Fort Worth-based railroad suspended her for 37 days over Christmas. When she returned to work in Memphis, Tennessee she was transferred to a far more physically demanding job. In a nine-to-nothing vote, the high court finds she was improperly punished, and it’s affirming a jury’s discrimination award. And even though White got back pay, Justice Stephen Breyer says having to go a month without any income is a “serious hardship.” Writing for the court, Breyer adds that an indefinite suspension could act as a deterrent against suing.

The Pittsburgh-based United Steelworkers Union says about 9,000 workers are expected to vote today on a tentative four-year labor deal with aluminum maker Alcoa. The union reached a last-minute agreement with Alcoa during talks in St. Louis last month. The deal averted a strike by workers at 15 of the company’s plants in Texas and nine other states. Steelworkers spokesman Howard Scott says the employees will have the opportunity to ask questions about the deal and vote to ratify it in shifts ending late tonight. Under the deal, union workers would receive annual wage increases but would have to start paying health care premiums, among other things. The workers would also get a $1,500 bonus.

Dallas County plans to bill foreign countries for the cost of treating their indigent citizens–but county officials acknowledge it’s unlikely they’ll be reimbursed. Parkland Memorial Hospital earlier this week began documenting the number of indigent foreign nationals it treats, says John Gates, the hospital’s chief financial officer. The county was stuck with $26.8 million in unpaid bills for the care of non-county residents at the hospital. But only about $300,000 of that was attributed to out-of-county indigent patients. Gates say the hospital does not ask patients their citizenship, although some patients identify themselves as foreign citizens with ID cards or by other means. There are no laws requiring counties or other nations to pay back the cost of treating patients.

Former RadioShack Chief Executive David Edmondson has been sentenced to 30 days in jail after pleading guilty to drunken driving. Edmondson will serve the sentence on a Tarrant County labor detail. A Tarrant County judge also suspended his drivers license for a year and fined him $650 under a plea deal with prosecutors. Edmondson was arrested in the Fort Worth suburb of Southlake in January 2005, two weeks after being named CEO at the Fort Worth-based electronics retailer. He disclosed the arrest to the company’s board at its meeting the next month. Edmondson had been arrested twice before on similar charges but was acquitted once and the second offense was reduced to obstruction of a highway. Edmondson resigned as RadioShack’s CEO in February after being caught lying on his resume.

A Gainesville, Texas businessman said today he’s dropped his campaign to bring a lottery and casino gambling to Arkansas. Michael Wasserman owns Arkansas Resorts and Hotels, Incorporated. He says he’ll try again in 2008. Wasserman gave up his effort to collect 80,570 signatures necessary to get his proposal on the November ballot. Wasserman says he decided to stop the campaign because of his sister’s death from a heart attack last month. The Arkansas Attorney General’s Office in March had certified language for Wasserman’s proposed ballot title. The proposal included building and operating casinos in Boone, Crittenden, Garland, Jefferson, Miller, Pulaski and Sebastian Counties. It also would create a statewide lottery.