AG accuses 3 of price-gouging, other arrests possible

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – In 2005 after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Mississippi Gulf Coast and Hurricane Rita hit nearby Louisiana and affected Mississippi, Attorney General Jim Hood accused numerous state retailers of price-gouging.
Earlier this week as Hurricane Isaac set its sights on the Gulf Coast and Mississippi, Gov. Phil Bryant issued a proclamation invoking the price-gouging statute, allowing Hood to again pursue litigation against retailers.
Under state law, when the statute is invoked in a state of emergency, retailers essentially cannot increase their profit margins. The proclamation only covered counties on I-20, southward.
“Even during a state of emergency, the law still allows a reasonable increase in prices to account for additional supply costs,” Hood said. “Retailers just have to be careful to keep their profit margin consistent with what they were getting prior to the proclamation allowing us to enforce the statute.”
Thus far Hood has charged two convenience store operators – one in the Jackson area and another in Roxey in southwest Mississippi – and a Vicksburg motel operator with price-gouging. He has said other arrests are possible.
As of Friday afternoon, Bryant’s proclamation was still in effect.
In 2005, Hood accused seven gasoline/suppliers of price-gouging. His office reached a civil settlement with five of them, resulting in the five paying penalties and attorneys’ fees of $293,251, according to Hood spokeswoman Jan Schaefer.
Two of the retailers are still contesting Hood’s allegations of price-gouging. During part of the ongoing litigation against those two retailers, the Mississippi Supreme Court in March 2011 upheld the constitutionality of the state’s price-gouging statute.
Hood also has obtained guilty verdicts against six hotel-motel operators in either criminal or civil litigation. In all of the cases, Hood said he pursued resolutions that helped the victims or reaped funds for the state instead of jail time for the accused.
Hood stressed that he believes most retailers are not trying to take advantage of people dealing with the storm, and that many go out of their way to help.
“It just isn’t right to slip in last-minute increases knowing our folks are facing an emergency situation.” Hood said. “After Katrina, some hotel owners in north Mississippi (the Tupelo area) decreased their prices for those fleeing the hurricane.”
Hood’s office had received this week more than 275 price-gouging calls related to Isaac. Most involved gasoline prices.
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com