Operation Spotlight' Alleges Cheating

Investigation claims fuel company's pumps deliberately shortchanged customers

AUSTIN, Texas -- Texas Department of Agriculture commissioner Todd Staples yesterday announced the results of "Operation Spotlight," a major investigation into Petroleum Wholesale LP's Sunmart gas stations. According to Staples, findings of the probe have confirmed that numerous Sunmart stations have cheated Texas consumers by giving them less fuel than they purchased, and he said that they strongly indicate this could have been a deliberate act by the company.

"Given the strong indication this company has intentionally cheated consumers, I have passed along the results of ‘Operation [image-nocss] Spotlight' to Attorney General [Greg] Abbott and his office has opened an investigation into the matter," said Staples.

The Woodlands, Texas-based Petroleum Wholesale did not respond to CSP Daily News' request for comment by presstime.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott in mid-June charged Petroleum Wholesale LP, which operates 86 Sunmart Travel Centers & Convenience Stores in 10 states, for exposing its customers to identity theft. According to the state's enforcement action, Petroleum Wholesale improperly discarded customer records. Investigators discovered that the company improperly discarded hundreds of customer records in a publicly accessible trash container outside its former headquarters. According to investigators, the records included sales receipts with customers' names and full credit or debit card numbers with expiration dates. The records also included returned checks, along with forms listing customers' names, banking routing numbers, driver's license and Social Security numbers. Petroleum Wholesale told CSP Daily News then that it was cooperating with that investigation.Click here for coverage.)

Staples initiated "Operation Spotlight" after becoming aware of some egregious violation patterns that pointed to the possibility of Sunmart intentionally shortchanging Texas drivers, he said. The three-day operation ended on Sunday, July 20. It claimed that 990 of Sunmart's 1,704 fuel pumps cheated consumers (58%), 47 Sunmart stations cheated customers on more than half of their pumps and 15 of those 47 stations had every single pump cheating drivers.

The Agriculture Department shut down all of the noncompliant pumps. While the investigation remains ongoing, TDA estimates the company could be fined more than $100,000 as a result of the alleged "irresponsible" actions.

Besides Texas, Petroleum Wholesale operates Sunmart fuel stations in Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Utah and Arizona. Staples has alerted regulatory officials in these states to inform them of this investigation.

Department inspectors will conduct followup inspections on each dispenser that was tagged out of order once it is recalibrated.It will also conduct re-inspections in the coming weekson a random sample of the Sunmart stations, the department said. "If we find continued violations, the penalties could rise much higher," Staples said.

"This investigation has given us great insight and we will use what we have learned to strengthen the regulatory process. We are raising the bar so there is a strong incentive for all gas station owners to be compliant; a goal which I believe is strongly shared by the 95% of the retail fuel industry that operates with honest business practices," Staples concluded.

Click herefor more details on the Operation Spotlight from the Agriculture Department.