Tallahassee Democrat: (FL)

      December 6, 2001
      Author: Bill Cotterell, DEMOCRAT SENIOR WRITER
      Edition: TD
      Section: B
      Page: B1


Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson sought fines  totaling $86,000 from more than 50 filling stations Tuesday for jacking up gas prices when terrorism raised fears about fuel supplies.
      An attorney for a large truck stop chain hit with one of the biggest  fines and the operators of a Panacea bait and tackle shop that drew only a warning denied any "price gouging." Clerks said stations all over the country were told to hike prices in anticipation of higher replacement costs, but they lowered them when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks did not cause a new Middle East oil embargo.
      "The message here today is that if you exploit our citizens in an emergency, you will pay a price," Bronson said in announcing civil enforcement actions. His office worked with Attorney General Bob Butterworth for more than two months on billing records at station where customers filed complaints.
      Bronson sought fines ranging from $10,000 to $500 against 53 stations and issued warning letters to nine others under a state law allowing investigators to determine whether price hikes are justified in an   emergency.
Flying J Travel Plaza near Midway was accused of raising prices between 30 and 39 cents a gallon immediately after the attacks in New York and suburban Washington. That could bring a civil fine of up to $5,000,  but company attorney Barre Burgon said Flying J will fight the charges.
      "I don't think we're at all guilty of price gouging," Burgon said. "Those guys in Florida are operating outside the realm of reality completely."
      He said "we were being bombarded with notices of cutoffs, price increases and allocation of fuels " Sept. 11 and "we did what we thought best" to meet continued fuel supply costs.
      Burgon said
Flying J , which operates about 150 truck stops nationwide, made two increases of 20 cents each when it appeared that resupply prices were going up. But he said "when we learned there was not going to be a supply shortage, we went right back down. We didn't have time to sit around and figure out which stations would have increases, and how much, that very day."
Merchant denies charges
      Eloise Crum, co-owner of Crum's Mini Mall in Panacea, said her warning  letter was prompted by one unfounded complaint by a customer who was dissatisfied with an unrelated business transaction. She said Bronson's department told her "that we complied with all state regulations," but  that warnings were issued on every complaint.
      Crum said the shop closed an hour early because of increased demand that Tuesday. She said the Amoco station raised prices 8 cents per gallon for a few hours on the next day, when all other stations in the area were hiking prices because they were going to have to pay more for their next shipments of fuel.
      "We're not trying to rip anyone off or gouge people," said Rhonda Plouffe,  the station manager.
      Four Swifty Serve shops and two E-Z Serve stores in Leon and Wakulla counties were among those cited by Bronson. Terence McElroy, an aide to the commissioner, said businesses can contest the fines in court, but Bronson also wants them to sign "voluntary compliance" agreements on future pricing.
      Those settlements do not admit guilt but say the station owners understand requirements of the price-gouging law.
      Contact reporter Bill Cotterell at (850) 599-2243 or bcotterell@taldem.com.

      Here's a list of area filling stations cited by Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson in his civil complaints of excessive price hikes after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The allegations have not been proven and may  be challenged by the businesses.


      Civil fines:
Flying J Travel Plaza, Midway
      Riverview Bait & Tackle, Chattahoochee
Williams Travel Center, Midway
      Swifty Serve, 1495 Capital Circle N.W.
      Swifty Serve, 2848 S. Adams St.
      Swifty Serve, 3101 W. Tennessee St.
      Capital Chevron, 1662 Capital Circle N.W.
      E-Z Serve, 1306 Coastal Highway, Panacea
      E-Z Serve/Swifty Serve, Crawfordville
      Express Lane, Carrabelle
      Swifty Serve/Swifty Mart, Carrabelle
      Swifty Serve, 3497 N. Monroe St.

           Warning letters:
      Crum's Mini Mall, Panacea
      E-Z Serve, St. George Island
      Swifty Serve, 145 Timberland Road
      Copyright (c) 2001 Tallahassee Democrat
      Record Number: 0112190013

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