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Business news in brief

In the Region

PUC delays surcharge probe

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission on Wednesday delayed ordering an investigation of FirstEnergy Solutions' polar vortex surcharge on its fixed-rate customers. The PUC removed a question from its agenda to initiate an investigation of the supplier's onetime charge of $5 to $15 on its fixed-rate customers. FirstEnergy called it a "pass-through" charge to offset some of the extra charges imposed on it in January by regional grid operator PJM Interconnection Inc. The company is one of the region's largest competitive energy suppliers. Robert F. Powelson, the PUC's chairman, told legislators this month there was a "stench" associated with the charge. Lawmakers decried the FirstEnergy charge because it seemed incompatible with a fixed-rate agreement. - Andrew Maykuth

50K switch after price swings

Nearly 50,000 Pennsylvania electricity customers have given up on competitive suppliers in the last two months in the aftermath of wild winter price swings for variable rate customers, the PUC reported. The PUC says that 2,177,499 customers were supplied by competitive suppliers, down 5,577 from the previous week, and down 49,368 or 2.2 percent from March 5. Much of the erosion has occurred in central Pennsylvania, where television news reports have focused on variable-rate customers whose bills quadrupled after the polar vortex. About 2,857 Peco Energy Co. customers have switched back to the utility since March 5, less than 0.5 percent. - Andrew Maykuth

$150M settles Medicare suits

Amedisys Inc., a Louisiana-based home health company with operations in 37 states, will pay $150 million to resolve allegations that it inflated Medicare billings and had improper financial relationships with referring physicians, the U.S. Department of Justice said. The settlement also resolves seven whistle-blower lawsuits, six in Pennsylvania and one in Georgia. The whistle-blowers, mostly former Amedisys workers, will split more than $26 million. Federal prosecutors in Alabama, Kentucky, South Carolina, and New York also worked on the case. The settlement does not constitute an admission of guilt, prosecutors noted. - AP

Sunoco distribution increase

Sunoco Logistics Partners L.P., the Philadelphia pipeline company, declared a quarterly cash distribution of 69.5 cents per common unit to be paid on May 15 to unit holders of record on May 9, 2014. The distribution, the 36th successive quarterly increase, represents a 5 percent increase over the previous quarter and a 21 percent increase from the first quarter in 2013. - Andrew Maykuth

Kopacz examines Detroit

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes in Detroit has appointed Martha Kopacz, a senior managing director at Phoenix Management Services L.L.C. of Chadds Ford, to examine the city's plan to reduce $18 billion in debt. Kopacz will advise the judge whether Detroit's plan is feasible and whether the assumptions that underlie its forecasts are reasonable, according to a court filing. Phoenix Management is a turnaround advisory firm that was an interim manager of Philadelphia Gas Works in the 1990s. Kopacz's team includes Bob Childree, former Alabama comptroller, and Albert Mink, who served as interim CFO for PGW. - Inquirer staff

Plea in Iran embargo case

The owner of a Pennsylvania company that makes steel-processing equipment has signed a plea agreement with federal prosecutors on a charge he conspired to illegally sell an $800,000 machine to an Iranian firm. Documents in the case were unsealed in federal court in Harrisburg. The agreement is subject to a judge's approval. Helmut Oertmann is CEO and owner of Hetran Inc., of Orwigsburg, Schuylkill County. Prosecutors say he falsified paperwork to get around a U.S. trade embargo. Oertmann's lawyer, Teresa Taylor, says Oertmann is fully cooperating. - AP

Exelon meets green goal early

Exelon Corp., the Chicago parent company of Peco Energy Co., said it has achieved its greenhouse-gas reduction goal seven years earlier than planned. The energy company said it has reduced or avoided 18 million metric tons of emissions - the target it set six years ago in its Exelon 2020 program - by retiring fossil fuel plants, upgrading its nuclear generation capacity, and investing in renewable power and customer energy efficiency programs. - Andrew Maykuth


New-home sales down sharply

The number of Americans buying new homes plummeted in March to the slowest pace in eight months, a sign that real estate's spring buying season is off to a weak start. The Commerce Department said sales of new homes declined 14.5 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 384,000. That was the second straight monthly decline and the lowest rate since July 2013. Sales plunged in the Midwest, South, and West in March. But they rebounded in the Northeast, where snowstorms in previous months curtailed purchases. - AP