Florida Subpoena Frenzy

Bronson seeks records of 22 RaceTrac stations in expanding Dennis gouging probe

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida Agriculture & Consumer Services Commissioner Charles H. Bronson yesterday announced that he is issuing a subpoena for the business records of 22 RaceTrac stations around the state in the continuing price-gouging investigation involving Hurricane Dennis.

According to consumer complaints filed with Bronson's office, the RaceTrac locations targeted in the subpoena all raised gasoline prices by at least 18 cents a gallon following the declaration of an emergency by Governor Jeb Bush on July 7 for the then-approaching Hurricane [image-nocss] Dennis.

This round of subpoena to the company follows some 22 subpoenas served by Bronson's office last week to other stations that were the subject of price-gouging complaints.

Jim Smith, president and CEO of the Florida Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association (FPMA), recently told CSP Daily News. These subpoenas are strictly of a fact finding nature" and do not necessarily mean that the retailer has engaged in price gouging.

Under Florida law, it is unlawful to charge exorbitant or excessive prices for essential itemsincluding gasoline, ice, water, lumber, generators or lodgingfollowing the declaration of an emergency, unless the increases in the amount charged are attributable to additional costs incurred by retailers.

Since the emergency was declared, Bronson's price-gouging hotline has received more than 2,000 calls and 1,045 complaints, most involving gasoline, his office said.

Since 2001, Bronson's department has collected more than $100,000 from some 80 stations or terminals in response to gasoline price-gouging complaints.

And as previously reported, Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist's office has issued subpoenas to Tate Oil Co. Inc., a distributor, and Shell's Motiva Enterprises LLC subsidiary, one of its suppliers, to determine why gasoline prices charged to gas stations increased as much as 30 cents per gallon as Hurricane Dennis approached the Florida coastline.

In the most recent issue of its PetroNotes, Smith praised Florida retailers: "FPMA members have done an outstanding job once again. Despite being portrayed as something akin to the anti-Christ, FPMA members in the panhandle as well as those that sent equipment into the area struck by the storm have preformed just like they did last year. I've said it before and it bears repeating. There is no recovery after a hurricane without you all providing the fuel to make it happen."

He added, "It would appear that this year, the Attorney General and the Agriculture Commissioner have divided the state up in a subpoena issuing frenzy. The AG has taken the panhandle and the Commissioner has taken the rest of the state. The major problem is that the media automatically assumes you're guilty and the last thing they're concerned about is the facts. This is a guilty-until-proven-innocent scenario and neither one of the issuing agencies will ever send out a statement to the media telling them you didn't do anything wrong. Those reporters probably wouldn't print it anyhow because that doesn't qualify as sensationalism which as we all know is the prime prerequisite to a front page story."