Friday February 24th, 2006
by: Ed Mayberry, February 24, 2006 5:02:00 am
Armed militants wearing black masks and military fatigues showed off a 68-year-old American hostage to reporters in Nigeria today. They also released photos of eight other foreigners seized a week ago by a group demanding a greater share of Nigeria's oil wealth. Nine militants carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers carried the captive by boat in the Niger Delta. They repeated demands for a third party to mediate an end to the crisis before returning the hostage to a boat, firing their weapons into the air and setting off into one of the delta's creeks. The man identified himself as Macon Hawkins of Texas. The unshaven, gray-haired man said the captives were "being treated quite well.'' He added--"just let's hope it ends well.'' Three Americans, two Egyptians, two Thais, one Briton and one Filipino were seized in a Saturday assault on a barge belonging to Houston-based oil services company Willbros Group. Willbros was laying pipeline for oil giant Royal Dutch Shell.
Venezuela has prohibited Continental Airlines and Delta Airlines from flying into the South American nation. The president of Venezuela's National Aviation Institute, Francisco Plaz, says the country also will restrict American Airlines flights. He says the measures were taken because the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration established a similar ban on commercial jets registered in Venezuela ten years ago due to safety violations. Plaz tells Venezuela's local Globovision TV channel that the ban would take effect Wednesday. A spokesperson for the Venezuelan Association of Airlines tells the Associated Press the three airlines were notified of the ban yesterday. The spokesperson says representatives of the three airlines would meet with the National Aviation Institute today to discuss the measure. Atlanta-based Delta currently flies daily from Atlanta to the Venezuelan capital Caracas. Houston-based Continental has daily flights between Houston and Caracas and weekly flights between New York and the capital. Fort Worth-based American flies daily between Caracas and Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Jurors got some free time today as the federal fraud and conspiracy trial of two former Enron leaders took its usual Friday off. Houston federal judge Sim Lake takes care of other court business on Fridays. Former Enron corporate secretary Paula Rieker was on the stand this past week in the trial of Enron founder Ken Lay and former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling. The former Enron vice president testified that she witnessed behavior by top executives that concerned her--in the months before the company went bankrupt. But Rieker, under cross examination, testified that she didn't think crimes were being committed. Defense attorney Daniel Petrocelli notes that, like previous government witnesses, she has been unable to document her assertion that Lay or Skilling knew they were being misleading in conference calls and in meetings with analysts.
"I don't want to discuss specifics, but again, I keep repeating myself--it is our ardent desire to have the jury hear and see as much as possible about what happened at Enron. We want all the witnesses to testify, we want all the documents, we want all the tapes. I believe that they tell the true story. So that's our mission, and we're trying hard to get the facts out. We're not interested in opinions, we're not interested in people's second-guessing and Monday morning quarterbacking. What we want is what did people say and do and think and believe at the time. That's what trials are about and that's what we're trying really hard to accomplish."
Prosecutors say they'll call the former chief accounting officer of Enron's trading unit to the witness stand on Monday. Wes Colwell has not been charged with any crime. In October 2003, he agreed to pay $500,000 to settle federal regulators' allegations that he manipulated earnings. The Securities and Exchange Commission says he used trading profits to offset massive losses in Enron's retail energy unit.
The Houston real estate market experienced continued strength with the highest sales on record for the month of January, according to statistics from the Houston Association of Realtors Multiple Listing Service. Total property sales for the month totaled 4,584--a 16.4 percent increase over January 2005. Properties sold during the month reached nearly $775 million--an 18.6 percent increase compared to the same month last year. The median price for a single-family home reached $138,110 and the average price rose to $179,160--both increases from last year of 4.4 percent.
The Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau is welcoming 26 conventions, trade shows and other events to the city in March. GHCVB President and CEO Jordy Tollett says more than 35,000 attendees will spend an estimated $34.2 million in Houston during the month.
Military officials say they aren't concerned about a United Arab Emirates company that could soon work with shipments bound for Iraq through Texas ports. But several lawmakers say it raises security questions for U.S. troops. Defense Department spokesman Major Paul Swiergosz says the UAE is a silent partner on the war on terror. Port officials say security won't be compromised when Dubai Ports takes over operations from London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation. But lawmakers say there is a classic difference between a foreign-based company running the operation and a state-owned foreign company. Dubai ports world offered late yesterday to delay part of the takeover. That would give the Bush administration time to convince lawmakers the deal poses no security risks.
The Port of Houston Authority released a press statement stating that the Dubai plans will not have an impact on any of the facilities or operations of the Houston port. The PHA is a political subdivision chartered by the state of Texas. It owns and either operates or leases 12 public facilities, and does not own or operate private facilities.
A federal judge in Richmond, Virginia, is holding off on an injunction that would shut down the operations of the Blackberry wireless e-mail device. After hearing arguments from NTP, holder of the patents used in the device, and Research in Motion--or RIM--which makes the device, Judge James Spencer said he would rule as soon as possible. However, he gave no timetable for a ruling. He also said that if he ordered an injunction, he'd make sure that the government's needs are met. Analysts say rim could settle at the last minute for as much as $1 billion and avoid an injunction. RIM has said that if an injunction shutting down Blackberry sales and service is granted, it'll introduce new software that would not violate NTP's patents.
Gasoline prices have fallen across the state for the fourth week in a row. The weekly AAA Texas gas price survey released today finds regular, self-serve unleaded gas averaging $2.15 per gallon. That's four cents less than last week. The national average for regular self-serve is $2.25 per gallon, down two cents from last week. The state's most expensive gasoline is in the Galveston-Texas City area, where regular averages $2.18 per gallon. That's down two cents from last week. The cheapest gas is in Corpus Christi, where it averages $2.03 per gallon. That's down two cents from last week. Auto club spokeswoman Rose Rougeau says pump prices have been falling as surpluses remain in gasoline and crude oil inventories. She says motorists should continue to see stable gasoline prices for the next two weeks.
Memorial Hermann Hospital System and TIRR Systems have agreed to consolidate the Institute for Rehabilitation and Research and TIRR Rehabilitation Centers into Memorial Hermann effective May 1st. TIRR has been named to the U.S. News list of "America's Best Hospitals" for 16 consecutive years. Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center is home to the Mischer Neurosciences Institute.
Houston-based PreCheck is opening an office in Alamogordo, New Mexico to serve as a back-up facility to the Houston headquarters, in response to the recent hurricanes along the Gulf Coast. PreCheck provides healthcare clients nationwide with employment background screening and credentialing. The company reports a 40 percent yearly growth rate in recent years.
Texas Tech is expanding its football stadium by 10,000 seats--including those in 19 new luxury suites. The Texas Tech University System regents today approved construction of the $45 million expansion. Tech Athletic Director Gerald Myers says the approval is contingent on the athletic department obtaining the money--of which as much as $20 million would come in gifts. The east side expansion will include a parking garage for 1,080 cars, 300 club seats, a 5,500-seat upper deck and 4,500 more seats in each of the stadium's four corners. That would bring capacity to just over 63,000 seats. The parking garage could be done by 2007 and the upper deck by the 2009 season. Myers said the expansion will put the school is about the middle of the Big 12 in stadium capacity.