Delegate calls for 'price gouging' investigation

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By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

MARTINSVILLE — Did Virginia drivers face illegally pumped-up gas prices in the wake of Hurricane Ike?

That's what Del. Ward Armstrong (D-Henry County), who represents Carroll citizens in the General Assembly, wants to know.

He has asked Attorney General Robert McDonnell to investigate possible violations of gas “price gouging” in both his district and in the state.

The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs, the overseeing agency, also heard directly from consumers who had the same concern, said department spokeswoman Marion Horsley. State officials have received a running total of about 2,200 calls on the matter so far, mostly from Southwestern Virginia, but she did not name specific localities.

"There's lots of allegations, lots of complaints about it, I can tell you that," she said Wednesday.

Drivers in the Twin Counties and elsewhere formed lines at gas pumps last week in anticipation of Ike disrupting supplies. At the same time, there were reports of gas prices increasing by as much as 50 cents in the region.

Several gas stations ran out in this period, Armstrong noted. The stations that had gas available charged as much as $4.30 per gallon in some areas of Virginia.

His letter to McDonnell expressed his "suspicions that suppliers of gasoline" in the region had violated Virginia's Post-Disaster Anti-Price Gouging Act.

The statute makes it against the law to charge "an unconscionable price" for necessary goods and services in the time of a state of emergency.

The delegate and House minority leader asked the attorney general to investigate whether gouging did occur in the state and prosecute any cases he might find.

"I am sure you agree with me that Virginia citizens should not be subjected to price-gouging on a necessary commodity, particularly given the substantial increases in the price of gasoline over the past months," Armstrong wrote. "Combined with the high unemployment that pervades my House district this situation is of critical importance to my constituents."

Most of the problems seem to be occurring from Roanoke to the western tip of the state, Armstrong said in a news release.

Suppliers reacted that they increased prices to reduce demand in the face of panicked buying, the delegate noted.

"The question is whether supplier's motivations were strictly to try to curtail demand or whether they were taking advantage of the situation," Armstrong said. "If it is the latter, that's illegal in Virginia and we need to continue to look into those actions to see if the law was violated."

In response to the complaints, inspectors from VDACS have been dispatched to gather information necessary about whether price gouging occurred, Horsley said.

She expects the investigation to be a lengthy process, as the inspectors have to look at a history of prices at a particular business and compare them to the general prices in the area.

Findings will be forwarded to the office of the attorney general to determine if charges will be made.