State cracks down on price gouging

By Ed Brock

The Rev. Walter Tolbert saw some immoral behavior by some gas station owners the day after Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast.

Just before Labor Day weekend Katrina temporarily cut off Atlanta's supply of gasoline from Louisiana and gas prices soured to over $5 a gallon. Tolbert said he's sure some stations were price gouging.

"People were panic-buying that day," Tolbert said. "The price gouging should not have been because the governor said we had plenty of supplies. The price is high enough as it is without having the price gouging."

The state Revenue Department and the Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs are working together to punish those who took advantage of the gas panic. But with Hurricane Rita churning through the Gulf on Thursday threatening to send gas prices up again, Tolbert isn't taking chances.

"I don't let (his gas tank) get below three quarters to half a tank now because we never know what supply and demand are going to dictate," Tolbert said.

Revenue agents have gone out on three different occasions following the Katrina situation, Revenue Department spokesman Charles Willey said, twice in the Atlanta metro area and once statewide.

When prices on the marquee seemed a little high the agents spoke to the station's owners, asking how much they had paid for the gas and comparing that to what was being charged.

It had an immediate effect.

"People saw and heard that we were looking and prices started going down," Willey said.

As of this weekend the Revenue Department has inspected 619 stations statewide, finding 47 with questionable prices.

On Sept. 4 the agents inspected 48 stations in Clayton County, finding perhaps 10 that were questionable. In Henry County during one of the inspections they looked at about 40 stations and found three price-gouging suspects.

Willey said they would forward at least 11 cases to the Office of Consumer Affairs.

"They are the ones who will take action," Willey said.

That action can include fines of up to $2,000 per violation, Consumer Affairs spokesman Bill Cloud said, and if the case goes to court the fine can go up to $5,000 per violation. Willey said his department could also revoke a station's liquor license if the owner is found to be price gouging.

Cloud said Consumer Affairs is taking complaints on two fronts, one on stations that seem to have an unjustifiable increase in prices and those that failed to pass the savings from a moratorium on the state gas tax on to consumers.

That moratorium, expected to save around 15 cents a gallon, ends on Sept. 30. Cloud said they are processing about 1,300 complaints from the public statewide regarding price gouging.

As for what qualifies as an "unjustifiable increase," it all depends on the cost of crude oil and how that affects the gas station owner's overhead, Willey said.

"The retailer, he's entitled to make some money," Willey said. "Just not too much money."