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.
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.
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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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