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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Charles H. Bronson is seeking or has collected fines totaling $46,000 against nine service stations for alleged price gouging in connection with the four hurricanes last year, reported Florida’s Sun Herald .
Settlement agreements sent by Bronson's department to the stations follow the imposition of $34,500 in fines levied by the department against nine other stations in late 2005 for engaging in price gouging during and in the aftermath of the storms, according to the newspaper.
Under state law, merchants selling essential items such as food, water, gasoline, lodging and storm-recovery materials during a state of emergency are prohibited from charging excessive or exorbitant prices for their goods, unless the increase in price can be attributed to additional costs incurred by the retailer.
Investigations by Bronson's Division of Standards, an office in the department that regulates the sale of petroleum products at gas stations, concluded that the nine stations unlawfully increased their prices for gasoline, the Sun Herald reported.
"We've looked at these cases thoroughly and are convinced that consumers were overcharged for gasoline by these companies," Bronson told the newspaper. "We will not tolerate any companies exploiting our citizens and visitors."
Service stations issued settlement agreements, which call for the payment of fines and pledges by the service stations that they will comply with Florida's price-gouging statute in the future, according to the report.
The stations involved include four Sparky’s Shell stations, Super Stop, Freedom Oil, South Dade Amoco, Buzzmart and Ronnie’s Food Mart. Each of the nine stations, with the exception of Freedom Oil -- which already has settled its case -- is free to reject the department's settlement offers. If they do, legal actions likely will be filed against the companies, Bronson told the newspaper.
The commissioner added that his department has current investigations of approximately 150 additional service stations, whose gasoline prices triggered consumer complaints last year.
During the 2005 hurricane season, Bronson's department received nearly 3,500 price-gouging complaints, most involving gasoline, reported the newspaper.