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Tuesday July 18th, 2006

City of Houston trade mission signs agreements with Shanghai, China…So-called “NatWest Three” may seek to have trial moved to Washington…Public Utility Commission introduces Web-based color-coded warning system for state’s power grid… A number of agreements have been reached between the City of Houston and the City of Shanghai in a week-long trade mission to China, […]

City of Houston trade mission signs agreements with Shanghai, China…So-called “NatWest Three” may seek to have trial moved to Washington…Public Utility Commission introduces Web-based color-coded warning system for state’s power grid…

A number of agreements have been reached between the City of Houston and the City of Shanghai in a week-long trade mission to China, in cooperation with the Greater Houston Partnership, with Mayor Bill White and Shell Oil President John Hofmeister. Mayor White says the agreements are expected to bring closer ties and increased economic opportunities to both cities, adding both more business and more jobs. The agreements signed include: a joint-degree and faculty development partnership between the University of Houston and the East China Science and Technology University; a partnership to develop shared exhibitions between the Houston Museum of Natural Science and the Jinshan District of Shanghai; a partnership between the Mayor’s Office of International Affairs and Development and the Shanghai International Merchandising Center to develop a joint trade development program, including procurement centers to match buyers and sellers; and an agreement between Houston and the Jinshan District of Shanghai to jointly facilitate business development for oil and gas and petrochemical companies. Mayor White was named a visiting professor at Tongji University, which will have a joint degree program with the University of Houston. The trip also is netting a program to bring Chinese language teachers to Houston schools, a scholarship program being developed for American students who want to learn about China and an agreement that the Port of Houston and the Port of Shanghai would reduce environmental emissions.

Attorneys for the so-called NatWest Three may seek to have the trial moved to Washington, according to London’s Daily Telegraph, on the grounds they would not get a fair hearing in Houston. The three former bankers face seven counts each of fraud relating to Enron’s collapse. David Bermingham, Giles Darby and Gary Mulgrew are alleged to have sold a division of the bank below its true value to Enron. The men then invested in the division, which was later sold for a big profit. The three–who face seven to nine years in jail–were granted bail last Friday. They are said to be staying at the Houston home of their defense attorney. Bail terms allow them outside only for religious services, meetings with counsel, medical care and food shopping. Their trial is set for September 11th. Meanwhile, Royal Bank of Scotland declined to discuss reports that it was close to settling a multi-million dollar action brought by Enron shareholders. RBS took over NatWest, and is one of several banks facing civil action from investors. The NatWest Three claim that RBS has information that could help their cases, but the bank is refusing to help because of its legal problems with shareholders.

Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare today announced it will sell three hospitals in the New Orleans area to Ochsner Health System. Tenet declined to disclose a sale price for the 203-bed Kenner Regional Medical Center in Kenner, the 207-bed Meadowcrest Hospital in Gretna and the now-closed Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans, which had 317 beds. The sale is expected to be completed by August 31st. Meadowcrest and Kenner Regional will remain open as acute-care hospitals. A surgical hospital will be opened on the Memorial campus in the fall.

The property owned by Tenet includes one that’s the focus of a criminal investigation into patient deaths during last summer’s Hurricane Katrina. A doctor and two nurses have been arrested on suspicion of second-degree murder over some patient deaths at Memorial during Katrina. Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans was cut off by flooding after Katrina hit last August. At least 34 patients died at Memorial. Ten were patients of the hospital’s owner Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare, while 24 were in a facility run by Lifecare Holdings. The three were arrested late yesterday and booked on four counts each after their arrests. They’re identified as Dr. Anna Pou and nurses Cheri Landry and Laura Bubo. The physician’s mother says she’s distressed by the treatment of her daughter. Jeanette Pou says medicine is the most important thing in her daughter’s life and the doctor never did anything to deliberately hurt anyone. After Katrina hit, the hospital had no power, sending the temperature inside past 100 degrees. Patients waited four days to be evacuated. There were rumors of euthanasia to ease the suffering of some patients, and that led Louisiana’s attorney general to investigate. When the bodies were initially recovered, the coroner said they were so badly decomposed the cause of death could only be listed as “Katrina-related.” But he later revealed that samples had been taken from patients who died at various hospitals and nursing homes to test for possibly lethal doses of drugs like morphine.

The Public Utility Commission has a new Web-based color-coded warning system to alert Texans about the current condition of the state’s power grid. Texas set a record for electricity usage Monday. The system uses green, yellow and red to signify the state’s increasing demand for electricity. On yellow days, extra conservation measures are urged to prevent electricity shortages during peak usage hours, and on red days, conservation is critical, with a higher probability of involuntary shortages from uncontrolled rolling blackouts.

The U.S. office market continued to tighten at a steady pace in the second quarter despite weaker job growth and other indicators pointing to a slowdown in the economy, according to a Grubb & Ellis report. Vacancy ended the quarter at 14 percent–its lowest level since the third quarter of 2001. Over the past year, average asking rental rates rose 6.3 percent for Class A and five percent for Class B office space. Sublease space rose very slightly, ending a 14-quarter string of declines.

Fresh economic numbers confirm what you probably already know. The Labor Department’s main measure of wholesale inflation, the Producer Price Index, jumped one-half of one percent last month. Leading the way were rising food and energy costs. That’s a bigger increase than expected. A number watched closely for inflation pressures, the so-called core rate, rose two-tenths of one percent. That number strips out volatile food and energy costs. The government follows tomorrow with the snapshot of retail prices, the consumer price index.

Halliburton has received a $150 million contract from Drilling Production Technology of Norway to provide drilling services on the Norwegian continental shelf, according to the Houston Business Journal. A 25-well exploration drilling campaign for the Bredford Consortium is set to begin this year, and Halliburton will utilize drilling, logging-while-drilling, mid logging, drilling fluids and drilling waste management, cementing and coring services.

Gas prices near, at and above $3 a gallon are pinching businesses and the people who work for them. Because real wages have been flat for a long time, consumers are particularly hard hit. In that light, Inc. magazine reports that some companies are helping their employees cope with the rising cost of commuting. Included are gift certificates for gas stations, bonuses for employees who walk to work and help buying a bicycle. A company in Atlanta has closed its plants on Fridays, switching to a four-day-a-week, ten-hour-day schedule to save driving time. Inc. adds there’s a resurgence in telecommuting, which was popular immediately after 9-11. Analysts expect the ranks of telecommuters to grow well past 10 million by 2009.

Houston-based Royce Builders is offering free gas for a year with the purchase of a new home, according to the Houston Business Journal. Customers who sign a contract on a home receive a free gas card valued at $2,400. The free gas promotion runs through September 30th. Royce Builders has over 45 communities in the Greater Houston area, with homes ranging from the $90,000s to the $400,000s.

Regulators in Missouri want to know if San Antonio-based AT&T supplied customer phone records to the National Security Agency in violation of state privacy rules. Public Service Commission members Robert Clayton and Steve Gaw issued subpoenas last month. They’re asking whether Missouri customer information and calling records had been disclosed to the National Security Agency. A judge in Jefferson City, Missouri has set an August 28th hearing on the request to compel AT&T to comply with the subpoenas. AT&T says federal security laws bar it from complying with Missouri’s request. The company also says Missouri lacks authority to examine any alleged cooperation between telecommunications companies and federal intelligence and security agencies.

Online gambling company Betonsports has asked that trading in its shares be suspended today following the arrest of its chief executive in Texas. David Carruthers is held in Fort Worth. He was detained while trying to make a connecting flight Sunday from the United Kingdom to Costa Rica, where Betonsports is based. U.S authorities say an arrest warrant has been issued for Gary Stephen Kaplan, the founder of the company. Kaplan is charged with 20 felonies. A federal court in St. Louis has issued a temporary restraining order to prevent Betonsports from accepting bets from within the U.S. The indictment alleges conspiracy, racketeering and fraud in taking sports bets from U.S. residents. A Betonsports spokesman says Carruthers and other executives had no idea there would be an indictment and they would have been willing to negotiate.

A north Texas athletics good company burned today, putting about 80 people out of work in the small town of Nocona. The fire destroyed the Nocona Athletic Goods Company, which was known for its baseball gloves. Mayor Paul Gibbs says the loss isn’t only financial–but historical and personal.

Crews have begun repair work on the Port Arthur Civic Center nearly ten months after Hurricane Rita came ashore. Hurricane-related holes and other damage to the roof have allowed rain to enter the structure. Port Arthur officials hope the $1 million repair job, which started this week, will be done by November 1st. Rita made landfall September 24th near Sabine Pass, about ten miles south of Port Arthur.

Open houses began today for citizen input on Capital Metro’s commuter rail project for the Austin area. Voters in November of 2004 approved a referendum to allow transportation officials to build a 32-mile commuter rail line from Austin to Leander in Williamson County. Capital Metro has unveiled plans for nine commuter stations and also rail cars that will be built by a Swiss firm–Stadler. Construction is expected to begin on the first station–in Leander–by September. Organizers say service could begin in 2008.

The top lawyer for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission says the agency probably won’t fire the contractor in charge of enrolling people in public assistance. But Steve Aragon says the state will hold Accenture financially accountable for problems with implementing its system. Last week, 60 state representatives urged the agency to fire the contractor. Earlier, 30 lawmakers had encouraged the agency to stay the course. Technical and operational problems have plagued Accenture’s implementation of a new state computer system to handle enrollment for some welfare benefits. The problems forced the state to delay the system’s rollout indefinitely. A spokeswoman for Accenture says the company is working with the state to make changes to improve the system. Agency executive commissioner Albert Hawkins says the terms of the contract protect the state.

Texas is delaying its new program to verify that motorists have auto insurance. Before starting the program, the state wants to figure out the best way to manage the data of 15 million drivers. Officials say the program, which the legislature approved last year, is on hold until next year. They’re figuring out how to step up enforcement without accidentally ticketing motorists because of bad information. An estimated one in five drivers on the road is uninsured. The insurance industry estimates that Texas drivers pay about $900 million a year to protect themselves against uninsured drivers. Under the program, law enforcement officials, vehicle inspection stations and others would be able to instantly verify whether a motorist has insurance. The program is being developed by the Texas Department of Insurance, along with the Departments of Transportation and Public Safety. Texas drivers will continue to pay a $1 fee in their license renewals to pay for the program, despite the delay.

Industry analysts say that only about 10 percent of computers, cell phones and other electronics gadgets ever get recycled. And the vast majority of them either collect dust or leach toxins into landfills. While it’s a growing problem, Austin-based Newmarket IT founder and CEO Jeff Zeigler also sees a huge business opportunity. The private company says today that it had won $50 million in funding from equity firm Catterton Partners to help it expand in the computer recycling market. Zeigler says it is a $1.5 billion industry that’s growing 45 percent annually. Gartner analyst Frances O’Brien says the computer recycling business has been fragmented so far, with dozens of smaller companies vying for a piece of the industry. But the market is shifting, and demand for large-scale services is expected to grow significantly as states and municipalities regulate the disposal of so-called “e-waste.”

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