Friday January 6th, 2006

Gasoline prices creeping up again...Former Dynegy employees receive prison time; Duke Energy trader will not be re-tried...National unemployment rate dips by one-tenth of a percent...

Gasoline prices were back on the rise this week after a one-week decline. The weekly AAA Texas survey found the statewide average retail price of self-serve regular gasoline climbed six cents to $2.20 per gallon. Dallas had the highest average price at the pump of $2.23 per gallon--up eight cents. Corpus Christi had the cheapest gas $2.11--despite an 11-cents-per-gallon increase that was the state's biggest. Auto club spokeswoman Rose Rougeau says motorists may continue seeing slight increases in pump prices over the next few days. She says the seasonal price decrease usually seen at this time of year has been blocked by crude-oil prices of $63 a barrel. The national average retail price of self-serve regular gas is $2.25 per gallon--up six cents from last week.


Two conspirators who helped a former Dynegy executive hatch a fraudulent accounting scheme received shorter prison terms in Houston. Ex-Dynegy finance executive Gene Shannon Foster will serve 15 months and former in-house accountant Helen Sharkey will serve 30 days behind bars. Both sought probation. U.S. District Judge Sim Lake hinted that Jamie Olis can expect to be re-sentenced to a minimum of nearly six years after an appeals court last year threw out the 24-year prison term. Foster and Sharkey each guaranteed themselves no more than five years in prison when they pleaded guilty to conspiracy in 2003. Foster testified against Olis at his trial. One year ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that judges were no longer bound by sentencing guidelines that Lake had used.


A former Duke Energy trading executive will not be retried on fraud charges that ended in a mistrial last month. U.S. District Judge Nancy Atlas approved a motion by federal prosecutors to dismiss 12 charges against Timothy Kramer. Last month, a jury found Kramer not guilty on seven counts of fraud, but ended an eight-week trial deadlocked on 12 counts. That forced Atlas to declare a mistrial. Kramer and former Duke executive Todd Reid were accused of illegally manipulating Duke's gas and power trades for 15 months, beginning in March 2001. That increased reported profits by $50 million. The two men were charged with 19 counts of conspiracy, wire fraud, mail fraud, bypassing accounting controls and falsifying public company books. Reid was acquitted of all charges.


The government says the nation's unemployment rate dipped in December by one-tenth of a percent to 4.9 percent. Today's report also indicates that growth in payrolls was not up to hopes. The Labor Department says 108,000 jobs were added in December, about half of what was expected. Among the revisions issued to earlier reports, there's word that November payrolls expanded by more than 300,000--higher than earlier reported. The decline in the jobless rate reflects the fact that some Americans left the labor market. With December's numbers now in, the economy added about two million jobs last year.

Analysts are generally upbeat about the job market's outlook, after seeing the latest snapshot from the Labor Department. Economist Mark Zandi with economy.com calls the job market "sturdy.'' Ken Mayland of Clearview Economics says the outlook is positive, looking for rebuilding from last year's hurricanes to lead to further hiring in the months ahead as well. For all of 2005, the economy added two million jobs, about the same as the year before.


The Bush administration is handing out hurricane relief payments to schools and colleges in Texas, as well as Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The coastal states will share more than $250 million as part of a $1.6 billion in recovery aid. Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in late August--forcing evacuations. Rita struck Southeast Texas on September 24th. Several hundred thousand Louisiana residents ended up in Texas. The awards include $50 million for Texas, $100 million each for Louisiana and Mississippi and $3.75 million for Alabama. Additional funds will go out as states provide data on exactly how much is needed and for what purpose. An estimated 372,000 students have been forced into different schools because of the hurricanes.


The U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs says Igloo Products has agreed to pay $236,000 to 903 women denied operative and laborer positions at the company's Katy location. Igloo will offer 31 operative and laborer positions to the group of women who were not hired over a two-year period.


A subsidiary of Webster-based commercial space services provider Spacehab has won business with Lockheed Martin. Spacehab says it will be providing payload processing services to Lockheed Martin's International Launch services for the ASTRA 1KR satellite. The firm is in negotiations to support NASA's spacecraft processing needs through 2010.


OYO Geospace has a new $7 million contract with the Bureau of Geophysical Prospecting for a retrievable seabed acquisition system, according to the Houston Business Journal. The 4,000 channel, four-component data acquisition system will be delivered in the third quarter. OYO Geospace designs and manufactures instruments and equipment used by the oil and gas industry in acquiring and processing seismic data.


The Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau is welcoming 12 conventions, trade shows and other meetings and events to the city in January and February. The bureau estimates that more than 85,000 attendees will spend an estimated $83.5 million in Houston. The 2006 NBA All-Star game is set for February 19th at Toyota Center.


Public relations professionals in Texas earned $5,000 to $7,000 more per year in 2005 than they did five years ago, according to the non-profit Public Relations Foundation of Texas. The compensation survey finds, however, that PR workers are enjoying fewer benefits than in the past, according to the Houston Business Journal. The statewide survey shows average compensation a month for 393 respondents to be around $73,000-plus in Texas. Dallas pay averages are the highest at around $80,000 and the lowest averages are in San Antonio and south Texas at around $58,000.


American Airlines executives expect April stock-based bonuses that could total more than $500 million. That's because shares of Fort Worth-based parent AMR Corporation have risen despite heavy losses at the nation's largest carrier. About a thousand employees from top executives to mid-level managers are expected to receive bonuses under a plan approved by the AMR board in 2003. The amount of the bonuses will be based on AMR's April stock price. At the current stock price, they would range from about $2,000 to about $1.7 million for Daniel Garton. He's American's executive vice president for marketing. Chairman and Chief Executive Gerard Arpey didn't participate in the bonus plan.


Fourth-quarter production at ConocoPhillips accelerated to the equivalent of 1.6 million barrels of oil a day. This follows disruptions caused by hurricanes and repair work. The pace is one percent higher than the daily average reported a year earlier. The Houston-based company is buying Burlington Resources in a $35.6 billion deal to boost reserves.

Houston-based Marathon Oil says it sold as much as 19 percent more oil and natural gas in the fourth quarter than last year. An estimated 385,000 to 390,000 barrels of oil equivalent a day were sold in the final quarter of last year, compared with 328,400 barrels a year earlier.


Cooper Cameron unit FuFlo Measurement Services has acquired Pennsylvania-based Caldon, which makes ultrasonic flow measurement products and systems. The company specializes in ultrasonic technology that bases measurements on the movement of sound waves through fluids. The technology is used in petroleum pipelines, refineries, hydroelectric dames, water distribution facilities and nuclear power plants. Houston-based Cooper Cameron acquired the flow control segment of Dresser Industries last month in a $224 million deal.


Shares of Houston-based Sterling Construction will begin trading on Nasdaq on January 20th. The company had been listed on the American Stock Exchange. The company will trade on Nasdaq under the symbol "STRL."


YellowPages.com has begun a distribution agreement with Yahoo! Local that gives YellowPages.com advertisers placement on Yahoo! Local and Yahoo! Yellow Pages. YellowPages.com is a joint venture between AT&T and BellSouth.


East Texas poultry producer Pilgrim's Pride says it'll start testing each chicken flock for Avian influenza before sending the birds to its processing plants. The testing program was developed by the poultry industry trade group, the National Chicken Council. Pilgrim's Pride president and CEO O.B. Goolsby, Jr., says properly cooked chicken has never posed a human threat from Avian Flu. But he says the additional inspections will increase protection for consumers. Pittsburg, Texas-based Pilgrim's Pride is the second-largest poultry producer in the United States and Mexico. It's been forced to reroute some shipments away from Turkey and Romania after Avian Flu scares in those and other European countries. Company officials partly blamed Avian Flu fears when they cut their short-term profit outlook by more than half, which sent Pilgrim's Pride stock to a 52-week low. Analysts, however, said the weaker profit outlook at Pilgrim's Pride was also due to a general slump in prices for chicken parts.


Blockbuster has settled a lawsuit brought by New Jersey over the nation's largest movie rental-chain's "end of late fees'' policy. New Jersey Attorney General Peter Harvey says the Dallas-based video renter has agreed to pay more than 140,000. Blockbuster also will continue to take steps to clearly notify customers of the terms. About 75,000 customers in New Jersey will receive credits for the restocking fee that they paid, totaling about 90,000. The state will receive the rest. The state sued Blockbuster last year, saying the company failed to disclose key terms in the policy. The suit said consumers were not told overdue game and film rentals are automatically converted to a sale on the eighth day after the due date. The lawsuit said customers learn about the sale cost only when they get their credit card statement. Under the settlement, Blockbuster does not admit any wrongdoing.


Late-shopping customers and higher average purchases boosted December sales at Best Buy by 12 percent overall. In addition, the nation's largest consumer electronics retailer says its fourth-quarter earnings will come in near the top of its earlier guidance. The company says revenue from its web site jumped about 40 percent as more customers shopped and redeemed gift cards online. Consumer electronics was Best Buy's strongest category. Sales shot up 47 percent overall and 13 and a-half percent at stores open at least 14 months. Sales of flat-panel TV's more than doubled at existing stores, while sales of music players and accessories scored double-digit percentage increases. On the other hand, traditional tube TV's and DVD players saw double-digit sales declines. Video game hardware sales rose during the first full month of X-Box 360 sales, though video game software declined as purchases for existing platforms slowed.


Larry Nelson foresees a struggle to find enough workers to process cotton crops if immigration reform shuts the border with Mexico. The West Texas cotton ginner says Texas cotton farmers "couldn't survive without them.'' His sentiment echoed comments made this week at a cotton conference by Texas Congressman Henry Cuellar. The San Antonio Democrat says that sealing the border and charging the 11 million undocumented people in the United States with felonies would be "very dangerous'' for agriculture. He told hundreds of cotton producers at the 2006 Beltwide Cotton Conferences in San Antonio that having workers to for harvests and other agricultural activity "is very, very important.'' He adds that if workers are made felons, "you have no workers.'' The House passed legislation last month that would enlist military and local law enforcement to help stop illegal entries. It also would require employers to verify the legal status of workers. It also would authorize erecting a fence along parts of the U.S.-Mexico border. The bill also upgrades the civil offense of unlawful presence in the United States to a felony.


Baker Hughes in Houston today reports the number of rigs actively exploring for oil and natural gas in the U.S. slipped by seven this week--to reach 1,464. One year ago the rig count was 1,242. Texas lost five rigs.


Houston-based Sysco has been named Best Vegetarian-Friendly Food Service distributor in PETA's third annual Proggy Awards. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals says the company's Moonrose vegan and vegetarian foods cater to people with health- and animal-related concerns, as well as people who just want to cut down on their meat intake.


The Alain & Marie LeNotre Culinary Institute French Cooking School has received the 2005 Small Business Award from the North Harris Montgomery Community College District. The school was founded on Allensby Drive in 1998.


Bio photo of Ed Mayberry

Ed Mayberry

Local Anchor, All Things Considered

Ed Mayberry has worked in radio since 1971, with many of those years spent on the rock 'n' roll disc jockey side of the business...