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BUSINESS IN BRIEF

Berkshire Partners to pay $196m for optical retailers

Berkshire Partners LLC of Boston agreed to buy two optical retailers for $196 million in cash and debt, adding to its portfolio of specialty-retailing investments. Berkshire Partners will pay $108 million in cash and debt for National Vision, which operates 290 optical locations in US Wal-Mart stores, Berkshire Partners managing director Randy Peeler said. It will also purchase Consolidated Vision Group's 111 stores for $88 million, he said. (Bloomberg)

THE NATION
Both sides in Vioxx trial depose Texas coroner

Lawyers on both sides of the nation's first Vioxx-related civil trial deposed the coroner who autopsied a man who died of an irregular heartbeat eight months after beginning a regimen of Vioxx. Dr. Maria Araneta, a former Johnson County, Texas, assistant coroner, is a crucial witness to the question of whether the painkiller caused Robert Ernst's death. Plaintiff's attorney Mark Lanier had planned to call Araneta as a surprise witness to testify that a heart attack more than likely killed Ernst. Merck's legal team asked state District Judge Ben Hardin to postpone her testimony so as to question Araneta privately away from the jury. The deposition was completed, but Hardin had yet to decide if Araneta's testimony would be presented to the jury. (AP)

Oil prices rise in advance of US inventories report
Oil prices rose on expectations of continued strong demand and in anticipation that weekly data from the US government today will show a decline in crude oil inventories. Light sweet crude for September delivery climbed 20 cents to settle at $59.20 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Heating oil futures fell less than a penny to close at $1.6037 a gallon on Nymex, while gasoline fell by 1.06 cent to $1.6958 a gallon. In London, Brent crude for September rose 17 cents to settle at $58.03 a barrel on the International Petroleum Exchange. (AP)

Report: Service changes could save $237m a year
Amtrak, the US passenger railroad, can save as much as $237 million a year by eliminating services such as dining and sleeper cars on long-distance routes, according to a government inspector's report. The savings would include dropping entertainment, checked-baggage service, food and beverages, and planned capital spending, Transportation Department Inspector General Kenneth Mead said in the report. Amtrak should consider selling packaged food, as airlines have done, to help stem $600 million in annual shortfalls on the routes, he said. The Bush administration and Congress are looking for ways to cut Amtrak's reliance on an annual federal subsidy, which is $1.2 billion this year. (Bloomberg)

Unit will sell $55b of car loans to Bank of America
General Motors Corp.'s GMAC financial services unit said it will sell up to $55 billion worth of US auto loans to Bank of America Corp. over the next five years in a deal to raise cash and help the division finance more vehicles. Bank of America, the nation's second-largest bank by assets, will make an initial purchase of $5 billion. In each of the agreement's five years, Bank of America will purchase up to $10 billion of GMAC's active US auto-finance contracts. GMAC will continue to service the contracts. Bank of America will hold the loans and sell them to investors. (AP)

Auditor says IRS unsure of taxpayer help needs
The IRS cannot tell whether its 400 help centers effectively aid taxpayers because the agency doesn't know who seeks help or why, an independent auditor said. The report comes after the IRS disclosed plans to close 68 of those taxpayer assistance centers, in anticipation of cuts to its customer service budget next year. The IRS disputed the findings by J. Russell George, the Treasury Department's inspector general for tax administration, who provides independent oversight of the tax agency. The IRS said it would explore ideas for getting more input from taxpayers about the services they need at help centers. The agency said it's also working on an electronic management program that will help taxpayers get faster service and gather more information about the services requested. (AP)

THE WORLD
Royal Bank of Scotland said near China bank deal

Royal Bank of Scotland Group PLC is close to acquiring up to a 15 percent stake in the Bank of China for up to $5 billion, the South China Morning Post reported, without saying who provided the information. Zhu Min, a Bank of China executive responsible for its restructuring, visited Royal Bank of Scotland's Edinburgh headquarters last week, and the sale may be completed by early next month, the Hong Kong-based English language newspaper reported. (Bloomberg)

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