Tuesday AM June 24th, 2008

Two underperforming area hospitals closing down…Vietnam's prime minister to open new consulate in Houston this week…Nonprofit groups fear charitable contributions could decline with economy…

Hospital Partners of America says its two Houston hospitals will cease operations when remaining patients are discharged or transferred. Both campuses of River Oaks Hospital—at Twelve Oaks Street and on Bellaire Boulevard in Sharpstown—have stopped accepting patients. The hospitals employ some 500 full-time employees. HPA says it has been unsuccessful in achieving an economically sustainable facility at either location.

Vietnam’s prime minister has begun a visit to the United States. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung hopes for some economic tips that might help ease soaring inflation at home. He also plans to open a new Vietnamese consulate this week in Houston, which is home to thousands of Vietnamese-Americans. Dung is the communist country’s third high-ranking leader to visit Washington since the former foes normalized relations in 1995, two decades after the Vietnam War ended. The countries have since built strong economic ties, with the United States becoming a leading trade and investment partner. Vietnam’s inflation hit 25 percent in May over the same period last year and is among the highest in Southeast Asia. The country began opening up to a market economy in the mid-1980s, and Dung says it still has a lot to learn. Dung’s expected to meet President Bush, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan during his trip.

Nonprofit groups and fundraisers fear the country’s economic woes will hurt donations this year. A philanthropy study says donations held steady last year despite the housing and credit crunches. But this year, there are also soaring gasoline and food prices, which experts fear may force people to cut back. The study, done by Giving USA Foundation, says charitable contributions in 2007 topped $306 billion. Donations held steady at 2.2 percent of gross domestic product. Individual giving, which accounts for the biggest chunk of the total, fell slightly. The chairwoman of Giving USA thinks people are naturally worried. Del Martin says smaller nonprofits are most vulnerable. A United Way official in Phoenix says to counter any potential drop-off, their strategy is to ask wealthier donors to increase their contributions.

Halliburton says it has dropped its pursuit of Expro International, which is holding meetings to approve a takeover by Umbrellastream. Expro provides services and products to measure and control the flow of oil and gas from wells.

Huntsman is suing Apollo Management and its two partners for fraud after the private equity group backed out of a deal to buy the chemicals company for $6.5 billion. Salt Lake City-based Huntsman seeks a Texas jury trial for damages exceeding $3 billion, plus additional punitive damages. Last Wednesday, Apollo’s Hexion unit said it no longer believes it can buy Huntsman, citing the company’s financial deterioration. Huntsman alleges Apollo falsely represented its commitment to the deal in order to get the company to terminate a previous buyout agreement with Dutch manufacturer Basell. Huntsman also plans to contest allegations made about its financial performance in the suit.

Transocean has signed a ten-year, $1.68 billion drilling contract with subsidiaries of Petrobras and Mitsui Group, according to the Houston Business Journal.

General Motors says it will further cut production of trucks and sport utility vehicles from the summer through the end of the year. Spokesman Chris Lee says GM will cut shifts, reduce assembly line speeds and temporarily idle seven factories because of declining consumer demand for the truck-based vehicles. The biggest cut will take place at the company’s Janesville, Wisconsin, factory that makes large SUVs. It will be idled the weeks of July 14th and 21st, plus it will be shut down another ten weeks through the end of the year. The other affected plants are in Arlington, as well as in Oshawa, Ontario; Silao, Mexico; Moraine, Ohio; Fort Wayne, Indiana; and Shreveport.

The U.S. Supreme Court is intervening in an Internet service provider’s lawsuit against AT&T. Linkline Communications accuses San Antonio-based AT&T of anti-competitive practices. Linkline buys high-speed service from AT&T. AT&T had asked the justices to step into the dispute over wholesale prices it charges for high-speed service to Internet service providers who then compete with AT&T for retail Internet customers. AT&T says it’s under no obligation to deal with the Internet service providers and that the lawsuit should be thrown out for failing to state a valid legal claim. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled against AT&T. It said the telecom company was setting its wholesale prices so high that the ISP couldn’t compete with AT&T’s low retail prices. The appeals court said that federal courts have recognized such price squeeze allegations for six decades. The Bush administration had urged the Supreme Court to take the case as AT&T requested.

The Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether decades-old maternity leaves should count in determining pensions. The issue has split federal appeals courts and could become increasingly important as women who took maternity leaves in the 1960’s and 70’s approach retirement. Their pregnancies occurred before the Federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act, enacted in 1979, barred companies from treating pregnancy leaves differently from other disability leaves. Since then, maternity leave has been credited toward retirement. The case before the court involves four AT&T employees who each took at least one maternity leave between 1968 and 1976. They have 67-261 days of non-credited leave because their pregnancies occurred before the law changed.

The Port Commission of the Port of Houston Authority is considering more than $100 million in construction projects this morning. Among other items, commissioners will decide whether to sign a $100.5 million construction contract with McCarthy Building Companies for the Bayport Terminal Complex Phase 1 Wharf. The project includes the construction of about 1,330 feet of additional wharf.

Reliant Energy is spending $50 million to reduce mercury emissions at five Pennsylvania coal-fired generating plants. Reliant will install activated carbon scrubbers to clean plant exhaust of mercury, according to the Houston Business Journal. The Houston company says mercury emissions should drop by 80 percent after the retrofitting.

Seattle broadcasting company Fisher Communications says it has rejected an unsolicited takeover offer worth about $384 million. The company says in a Monday statement that the board decided the bid last April was not in the best interest of shareholders. The company owns and operates Fisher Pathways Transmission Service, the Fisher Plaza Building near the Seattle Center, and a Dallas-based online local news service called Pegasus News. Fisher also owns and operates 13 full power TV stations, eight low power TV stations and eight radio stations in the west. They include KOMO-TV and radio in Seattle.

Maine’s newest museum looks a lot like a gas station. Lamb’s antique gas station museum, which opened to the public over the weekend, is dedicated to all things related to Shell gasoline. Jim Lamb’s grandfather once owned a Shell station and Lamb caught the memorabilia bug after somebody gave him a key chain featuring his grandfather’s Shell station logo. After that he began collecting Shell collectibles ranging from old gas pumps and oil can racks to matchbooks, oil filters and cans of Shell brake fluid and antifreeze. He and his wife set up a re-creation of a vintage Shell station next to their mobile home parts business, parts & pieces, to house the museum.

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