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    State seeks fines for post-attack gas price gouging

    Retailers accused of raising prices as much as 50 cents a gallon could face fines of up to $10,000.

    By ANITA KUMAR
    © St. Petersburg Times,
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    published December 6, 2001


    The state will seek $86,000 in fines from 53 gas stations around the state, including five on the Suncoast, accused of price gouging after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

    Florida officials began investigating the businesses after hundreds of customers complained about prices being unfairly raised between 10 cents and 50 cents more a gallon.

    "The message here today is that if you exploit our citizens in an emergency, you will pay a price," said Charles Bronson, Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services commissioner.

    Another nine service stations accused of raising prices up to a dime a gallon will receive warnings from the state but will not be fined.

    Bronson's office, with the help of Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, issued about 75 subpoenas for records from the businesses in the days after the attacks and then spent the past couple of months reviewing them to determine which price increases were justified.

    Officials announced Wednesday that they would try to settle cases with the 53 gas stations, allowing them to pay fines from $500 to the $10,000 assessed on a Pensacola station suspected of raising prices 50 cents a gallon.

    The businesses would sign agreements in which they do not admit guilt but would pledge not to violate the price gouging law in the future and be liable for refunds to customers who have proof they bought gas at the inflated price.

    If the stores decline to cooperate, the state will proceed with legal action, said Terry McElroy, department spokesman.

    The five Suncoast gas stations cited by the state include one each in Pinellas and Pasco counties and three in the Beverly Hills area of Citrus County.

    At the Farm Stores location at 7100 Park Blvd. in Pinellas Park, where gas was selling for $1.01 a gallon Wednesday, officials referred inquiries to a corporate office.

    Juan Diaz, general counsel for United Petroleum in Miami, which operates the station under a license agreement with Farm Stores, said he was not aware of the state's decision and denied unnecessarily raising prices. He said the store raised the price 6 cents a gallon but only after its suppliers increased the price by 12 cents.

    Under the state's price-gouging law, which went into effect after Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency in September, a retailer can raise prices if it stems from increased costs by suppliers.

    Carl Swander, 60, owner of Swander's Auto Mart in Citrus County, acknowledged raising gas prices by a dime a gallon but said that decision was based on information from his distributor and observations of other stations. Swander said he reduced the price by 8 cents a few days after it was clear there was no shortage.

    "If I had been price gouging, I sure would have raised it a heck of a lot more," he said. "I've never tried to cheat anybody."

    - Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report.

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