TransMontaigne Investigation Continues

Ongoing Florida price-gouging probe targets fuel wholesaler

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida officials are expected to meet this week with TransMontaigne, a major player in the wholesale gasoline market that they say remains under formal investigation, according to The Palm Beach Post. More than 10,000 Floridians complained to state agencies about steep increases in the price of gasoline after Hurricane Ike last year, and at least two retail stations in North and Central Florida have agreed to settlements of price gouging allegations for about $6,000. A "grab bag" of such settlements with small-scale businesses is typical after a disaster, [image-nocss] said the report, but this investigation of TransMontaigne, a subsidiary of New York City-based Morgan Stanley, is larger in scale.

"We deny that we engaged in any price gouging, and we are fully cooperating with any investigation," Jennifer Sala, vice president of corporate communications for Morgan Stanley, told the newspaper.

Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum and Agriculture & Consumer Services Commissioner Charles Bronson said they are determined to complete an examination of pricing records to find out whether TransMontaigne violated state law. A statute, passed after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, forbids price increases for water, food, gasoline and other commodities during a declared state of emergency that "grossly exceed" the average price of the previous 30 days.

"I'm glad to see this," Pat Moricca, president of the Gasoline Retailers Association of Florida told the paper. "I'm glad it's finally coming out."

In Moricca's view, "little guys" who run gas stations shoulder the brunt of bad publicity for price gouging investigations. Yet they are often simply passing along higher costs from terminal owners and wholesalers, Moricca said.

TransMontaigne raised prices on the order of $1.50 a gallon during Ike, according to Moricca, although TransMontaigne and state officials were not confirming or denying any particular price numbers. Prices were all over the map in Florida at the time of Ike, particularly in the market for unbranded gasoline.

NexStore, a retailer in Boca Raton that sells unbranded gasoline, shut down its 20 pumps on September 12 rather than accept a $1.26-a-gallon price increase that would have made pump prices hit $5.20, said the report.

Bronson's office initially asked for records of 10 terminal owners, including Exxon Mobil, BP, Chevron and Hess. He and McCollum jointly announced what they called a formal investigation of TransMontaigne in December.

Florida law allows for civil penalties up to $25,000 per day, the report said.

"Florida will not tolerate price gouging by anyone," Bronson said in December.

McCollum said: "Our investigation will continue to determine exactly what led to the extraordinary increases in the price of gasoline."

Moricca said people should harbor no illusions that one investigation will frighten the industry's most powerful players. "It's good business to take in a billion dollars and pay a $1 million fine," he said.

But there is still some value in making companies think twice because it could aid consumers next time, said Pierce Whites, general counsel to Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo. "I think it is time for that pendulum to swing back," Whites told the Post. "These kind of suits are going to have a positive effect for the public at large, whether you win, lose or draw."