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Attorney general: 10 complaints of gas price gouging in Lee; State issuing subpoenas

By Staff | Sep 16, 2008

Gas gouging complaints poured into the Florida attorney general’s office over the weekend in the wake of Hurricane Ike, prompting state officials to issue a series of subpoenas to four different companies.

Two of those companies — Dodge’s Gas Stores and Pilot Travel Centers — have locations in Lee County with complaints lodged against them. The four companies have one week to respond to the subpoenas.

They are part of the more than 1,200 price gouging complaints currently being investigated by the attorney general’s office. There have been 10 complaints in Lee County.

According to Florida statute 501.160, price gouging on essential commodities, including gasoline, is prohibited during a declared state of emergency.

Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency on Sept. 5, when it was still uncertain if Ike would make landfall in Florida.

Sandi Copes, spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, said complaints were pouring into the office “by the minute”.

“I’ve been here five years and haven’t seen numbers like this since 2004,” Cope said.

Of course, 2004 saw Hurricane Charley decimate parts of Southwest Florida, during which Cope said 4,318 gouging complaints were lodged.

Cope added the attorney general’s office only investigated 151 total complaints after Tropical Storm Fay, which made four separate landfalls across Florida.

Investigations are conducted by determining if a location raises their prices due to paying higher rates to their suppliers.

Cope said investigators review each complaint through phone calls and personal visits. Penalties can range from $1,000 per violation to $25,000 a day.

“If the retailer can’t justify the increase, it’s gouging,” Copes said. “They have to prove they had to pay a significantly higher rate to a supplier.”

Investigators must determine if the complaints are valid or represent a “regular” increase in prices. Copes said they take every complaint seriously and investigate accordingly.

“We’re seeing a wide range of prices coming in,” Copes said. “If there’s complaints coming in, we want to know about it and investigate it.”

One of the Lee County locations with a complaint lodged against them is the Pilot Travel Center located at 6050 Plaza Drive in Fort Myers.

The complaint reported the station was selling regular unleaded at $4.17 a gallon. A phone call to the station Monday found regular unleaded at $3.99.

Prices have been reported as high as $4.79 in Lee County, while the highest reported price was $5.49 in Leon County, according to Copes.

To report possible price gouging, call (866) 9-NO-SCAM (966-7226).