Tuesday January 10th, 2006

Judge denies defense request to dismiss Enron charges...Texas A&M report optimistic about economy...FDIC report notes Gulf Coast economic damage from hurricanes...

A judge in Houston has declined to dismiss fraud and conspiracy charges against Enron founder Ken Lay and former CEO Jeff Skilling. U.S. District Judge Sim Lake says lawyers for Lay and Skilling failed to prove their allegations of "deliberate, systematic prosecutorial misconduct.'' Prosecutors have denied intimidating anyone. Lake last year sent letters to lawyers for witnesses saying they were free to talk to the defense teams without fear of retribution from the government. Skilling faces 35 counts of fraud, conspiracy, insider trading and lying to auditors. Lay faces seven counts of conspiracy and fraud. Both have pleaded not guilty and face trial January 30th.


The Texas economy will do well in 2006, according to a Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University forecast. Research economists base their optimism on stable interest rates, a personal income that's higher than the national average, employment growth and good home prices, sales and construction. An estimated 34 percent more homes were sold by Texas multiple listing services in 2005 than three years earlier. The report says historically-low long-term interest rates and the residential real estate market are helping the state bounce back from soaring energy prices, hurricane devastation and the financial burden of the Iraq war.


The proportion of consumers behind on their credit card bills remained near record-high levels in the third quarter of last year. That was as high gasoline prices and rising interest rates continued to strain budgets. The American Bankers Association reports that the percentage of credit card accounts 30 or more days past due dipped slightly to 4.74 percent in the July-September quarter. That's after hitting an all-time high of 4.81 percent in the spring. Even with the slight decline, consumer card delinquencies in the late summer and early fall were at the third-highest level on record. That's prompting concern about possible further problems to come.


With the holiday season behind, Toys R Us plans to close 87 locations in the coming months as part of its reorganization after being taken private last year. The Houston outlet slated for closure is on the North Freeway near Greenspoint Mall. Eleven other area stores will continue to be operated. Plans call for converting a dozen of the locations into Babies R Us stores. The closures will cause the company to record $155 million of restructuring charges. News of the plans comes from Vornado Realty Trust, which bought the company last year in a partnership with private equity firms Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and Bain Capital Partners.


The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation says signs of the impact of the hurricanes on local economies and the banking sector along the Gulf Coast are beginning to emerge. The winter 2005 edition of the FDIC Regional Profile and FDIC State Profiles indicate inventories of unsold homes grew in parts of the West, Northeast and South, and the pace of sales has slowed. The reports say that while the effect on the national economy has been muted, the storms significantly influenced economic and banking conditions in the hardest-hit areas.


Hurricane evacuees living in hotel rooms must obtain permission from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to remain in their lodging beyond February 7th. Acting FEMA Director R. David Paulison said yesterday that evacuees who seek an authorization code by January 30th can remain in their rooms through at least February 13th--and possibly longer. Authorization codes are available from FEMA by calling 1-800-621-3362. Officials say new hotel check-ins will no longer be allowed without a code. FEMA says evacuees still inhabit almost 11,000 Texas hotel rooms--including about 5,800 in the Houston area. FEMa is encouraging evacuees participating in a housing program created by the City of Houston to apply for long-term housing assistance from FEMA.


The slogan "re-shade orange'' is all about green and getting some of it back into the landscape of hurricane-ravaged Orange County. The non-profit Stark Foundation has launched a replanting project to replace trees downed by Hurricane Rita. The storm hit Southeast Texas on September 24th. Each household will have the opportunity to get a free tree, with three trees per household. Varieties include live oak, bald cypress, red maple and southern magnolia. Mike Hoke with Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center says those trees were selected because they were big survivors during the hurricane. He told the Beaumont Enterprise that while many pines fell, the majority of cypress and magnolias held their ground.


Austin-based natural food grocer Whole Foods Market has purchased the nation's largest-ever corporate purchase of renewable energy credits, according to Bloomberg and USA Today. The purchase, to promote use of non-polluting electricity sources, is equivalent to all the electricity used in the company's supermarkets and other buildings. The credits were acquired from Boulder, Colorado-based wind power broker Renewable Choice Energy. Renewable Choice tracks power production from wind farms and issues certificates that represent the output. Whole Foods says the credits make it possible to effectively make nationwide purchases of wind power, which can't be physically delivered to all the company's stores.


Former Houston Mayor Lee Brown has been named chairman of the board of an investment group that has acquired substantial interest in Unity National Bank. The U.S. Comptroller of the Currency, the U.S. Treasury Department division that oversees national banks, has authorized a change in control from the previous owners to Brown's business partner, Dr. Kase Lawal. Minority partners assumed control of the bank in 1989.


The University of Texas at Permian Basin and a California nuclear technology company want to build a test nuclear reactor in West Texas. University officials joined representatives of San Diego-based General Atomics to present their proposal to residents of Andrews County last night. Officials say the project would include a high-temperature test nuclear reactor and high-temperature labs for testing other methods of producing fuels, hydrogen and electricity. The first step of the proposed project would be the development of a $3 million conceptual design. Then the partners would have to raise an estimated $400 million to build the project. David Watts--the president of Texas-Permian Basin--said he supports the project as a research facility. He says he is convinced that it would be safe. Andrews has about 10,000 residents and is located about 95 miles southwest of Lubbock.


Lottomatica, which is the license holder for the Italian lottery, today announced plans to buy the world's top operator of lottery systems. It's a $4.65 billion cash deal for Rhode Island-based G-Tech, which provides lottery systems for Texas and more than 20 other states. Lottomatica plans to buy all of G-Tech's outstanding common stock for $35 per share, plus assume G-Tech's debt. The combined company is expected to operate in more than 50 countries and have over 6,300 employees. Texas Lottery spokesman Bobby Heith said the agency plans to hire an attorney to watch out for the state's interests throughout the merger process.


Houston-based GulfMark Offshore plans to build a second $30 million Aker PSV09 design vessel. The 4,850-ton, diesel-electric-powered platform supply vessel will be identical to one currently under construction in Norway, according to the Houston Business Journal. GulfMark currently has ten owned vessels under construction, bringing its fleet to 58 in 2008 when the last vessel is delivered.


Sugar Land-based Applied Optoelectronics is establishing a research center in the San Jose, California area. The company makes laser diodes, photo detectors and optical modules for fiber optic communications systems.


Houston-based Hines has purchased three acres in California for the development of a new office tower, according to the Houston Business Journal. The new building will be part of a 12-acre mixed-use development call La Jolla Commons in La Jolla. The seller plans to develop a luxury hotel and high-rise condominiums near the office building site, which is one block from a large regional mall.


Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based Spirit Airlines today began daily flights between Fort Lauderdale and Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Spirit says the DFW-to-Fort Lauderdale flights connect with flights to 12 Caribbean and Bahamian destinations. The airline features Airbus A-319 jets with all-leather interiors and a business class cabin. Fares from DFW to Fort Lauderdale will start at $79 each way, with connecting fares ranging from $99 to $186 each way. Those fares are good through February 15th. Connections are available to Cancun, Mexico; Kingston and Montego Bay, Jamaica; and Nassau and San Salvador in the Bahamas. Connections will also be available to Punta Cana and Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. Starting next month, connections will be added to Grand Cayman; the Turks and Caicos Islands; and Orlando, Florida.


Just like with Wrestlemania or boxing events, would you pay to watch a meeting of state bureaucrats? For a $200 monthly fee, a Texas company will provide clients with unlimited access to all live and archived Web casts from the New York Public Service Commission. The company offers similar sessions of agency meetings in Texas and California. The New York PSC's meetings have been Web cast by newyorkadmin.com, which is a subsidiary of Austin-based Adminmonitor.com. The service is used primarily by companies, lawyers and lobbyists with business before the commission, which regulates water, electric, natural gas and telephone utilities. Adminmonitor has a contract with New York to provide the service, but doesn't charge the state any money.


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...