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Florida Agriculture Commissioner Fines 53 Gas Stations for Price Gouging

December 6, 2001 3:31am

Dec. 6--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 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 stations where customers filed complaints.

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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.

The 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" on 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."

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.

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To see more of the Tallahassee Democrat, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.tdo.com

2001, Tallahassee Democrat, Fla. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.


Copyright 2001 Knight-Ridder / Tribune Business News