Thursday PM September 28th, 2006
by: Ed Mayberry, September 28, 2006 5:09:00 am
Lawmakers today are sharply criticizing the tactics used in Hewlett-Packard's spying probe. This as a congressional hearing into the technology company's handling of boardroom leaks. Ten people involved in the company's investigation, including HP's just-resigned general counsel and hired private eyes, appeared before the House panel and asserted their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, refusing to answer questions. Just hours ahead of a much-anticipated Congressional hearing focusing on its handling of boardroom leaks, the top attorney of HP has resigned. The technology company says the resignation of General Counsel Ann Baskins is effective immediately. Baskins spent 24 years with the Palo Alto, California-based company. Ousted HP chairwoman Patricia Dunn says she never doubted the legality of the practices. Dunn says she learned in the spring of 2005 that the probe involved obtaining access to phone records. Besides the inquiry by the House committee, federal and California prosecutors are investigating whether company insiders or outside investigators broke the law. Lawmakers want to know more about HP's effort to root out leaks to journalists. At issue is the legality of the use of a network of private investigators who pried into the personal lives of journalists and HP directors.
Congress is struggling to do something about a problem known as "pretexting'': gaining access to private phone records under false pretenses. The issue has been making headlines because of the HP case in which private investigators lied to gain access to phone records in a leak investigation. Federal law bars fraudulent access to financial records but doesn't cover phone records. Virtually everybody in Congress agrees phone pretexting is wrong and should be banned, too. A bill to do that won unanimous House approval last April, but competing versions are hung up in the Senate. One version would supersede state laws. That's opened another can of worms because civil rights activists are using those laws to challenge federal eavesdropping aimed at catching terrorists.
Federal investigators are looking at multiple projects within and outside of Nigeria, investigating a possible bribery scheme involving Houston-based Halliburton and a $5.5 billion Nigerian natural gas plant, according to the Houston Chronicle. The Securities and Exchange Commission has issued subpoenas seeking documents from projects over the last 20 years. Activities under question predate Halliburton's acquisition of Dresser Industries, which owned M.W. Kellogg, which was merged with Halliburton's Brown & Root to former Kellogg, Brown & Root, now known as KBR.
Meanwhile, Reuters reports that U.S. employees working in Iraq will not be receiving overtime pay, after a ruling by U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon. A Pentagon contract called for overtime wages to be paid in Iraq, but U.S. laws governing military contracts allow only workers employed inside the United States to receive overtime pay. The plaintiffs in the class action suit include an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 employees who worked for KBR in Kuwait and Iraq.
Pilgrim's Pride--the nation's second-largest chicken producer--said today that it will launch a hostile bid for smaller rival Gold Kist for about $1 billion. That comes after Gold Kist's management declined to strike a deal. The offer of $20 a share would be a 55 percent premium over Gold Kist's closing stock price on August 18th, when Pittsburg, Texas-based Pilgrim's Pride disclosed its interest in buying the nation's number three poultry producer. Even a combined company would be far smaller than industry leader Tyson Foods. Gold Kist urged its stockholders against selling to Pilgrim's Pride while its directors study the unsolicited bid. Gold Kist has indicated it would prefer to remain a stand-alone company. Atlanta-based Gold Kist noted that Pilgrim's Pride has not changed its price since August. Gold Kist shares jumped in August and now trade for more than the Pilgrim's Pride price. The offer by pilgrim's pride is set to expire October 27th.
The City of Houston and local port authorities have been awarded more than $11.6 million in port security funds and $800,000 in rail and ferry transit security funding as part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Fiscal Year 2006 Infrastructure Protection Program. Ports throughout Texas were awarded more than $33 million for security enhancements. The Port of Houston Authority was awarded $1.75 million to cover part of the costs of access control and closed-circuit television systems. The grant is part of the nearly $168 million allocation in Round 6 federal port security grants. And the Houston Advanced Research Center in The Woodlands has been awarded a grant of $973,091 to develop new explosives screening methods for air cargo.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is providing federal aid in a $5,063,687 grant to the City of Houston for program delivery/project management costs related to Hurricane Katrina, for costs incurred through June 30th of this year.
A government lawyer says no federal charges will be filed over a 2004 crude oil spill that fouled Central Puget Sound beaches. Negotiations on civil penalties are continuing. An assistant U.S. attorney wouldn't elaborate on reasons for declining prosecution of Houston-based ConocoPhillips. The 1,000-gallon spill left residue on 21 miles of Washington state beaches. Cleanup cost nearly $2 million. Washington and Coast Guard officials later said chemical testing indicated the oil likely was from the tanker Polar Texas. The tanker was owned by a ConocoPhillips subsidiary. ConocoPhillips has not taken responsibility for the spill. Company spokesman Rich Johnson told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer it would be inappropriate to discuss the talks. The company is cooperating with authorities.
Nanotx'06--a conference on the science of the very small--continued today in Dallas. Wednesday at the nanotechnology conference, Governor Rick Perry announced a $30 million public-private investment. Perry said the goal is to attract seven or eight of the world's leading scientists and their research teams to work for the new Southwest Academy of Nanoelectronics. The academy was first announced in July--when the University of Texas System regents gave Chancellor Mark Yudof permission seek grants from the state and industry leaders to help create it. Perry stressed that other fields of nanotechnology ranging from medical applications to micromachines, would be a part of the research, not just nanoelectronics. He says the idea is to create a regional center for research and development in nanotech that can quickly grow into commercial applications. Nanotechnology is the science of manufacturing and manipulating materials at the molecular or atomic level.
After weeks of testing, KUHF tonight begins broadcasting an HD Digital radio signal, in addition to the traditional 88.7 analogue signal. Mayor Bill White is scheduled to launch the new digital broadcast service just after six this evening. The system allows two independent High Definition radio signals—HD-1 carries the main signal and programs of 88.7 and HD-2 will have additional classical music and NPR programs not currently heard on KUHF. Basically, when KUHF's main signal is carrying new or NPR programming, the second HD signal will carry classical music. When the main KUHF channel is broadcasting classical music, the second HD channel is carrying additional NPR programming. HD Radio provides near-compact disc quality, along with reduced interference and less static, especially noticed in car radios. To receive HD, you must have a new receiver, either in your car or at your office or home. Receivers are now available through a number of outlets in Houston and via the Internet. Both signals are available in streaming audio on the KUHF Web site. At least 16 radio stations in the Houston area are now broadcasting dual signals with the HD format.