State fines Kroger for gouging

ATLANTA - The Covington Kroger store located on U.S. Highway 278 has been fined $4,000 jointly with two other Kroger locations by the Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs in connection with what OCA Administrator Jim Doyle calls gasoline price-gouging, according to a printed press release.

Doyle released a list of settlements that have been reached as a result of recent gasoline price-gouging investigations conducted by the OCA following an executive order issued by Gov. Sonny Perdue on Sept. 12.

"Under Georgia law, price-control statutes are activated upon the governor's declaration of a state of emergency. During the declared state of emergency, businesses may not sell any goods or services necessary to protect the health, safety or property of citizens at prices higher than the prices at which those same goods or services were offered before the declaration of a state of emergency," the press release states.

Kroger officials issued an apology for the incidents in which their Fuel Centers - located on U.S. Highway 278 in Covington, in Suwanee and in Cumming - overcharged customers. The dates the overcharges occurred in Covington were Sept. 13, 14 and 16 and were for premium grade gas only.

"We at Kroger apologize to our customers for this situation affecting three of our Fuel Centers in the Atlanta Division," said Kroger Co. Director of Communications and Public Relations Glynn Jenkins on Thursday afternoon. "We have come to an agreement to settle this matter with Georgia's Department of Consumer Affairs, and signage is posted at the affected locations to notify customers."

In addition to the fine, Kroger will pay "consumer restitution" - the difference between the price the customers should have paid and what they actually paid for a gallon of premium gas.

"Kroger is voluntarily providing partial refunds to eligible customers who purchased select grades of gas at three Fuel Centers on specific dates between Sept. 13 and Oct. 1, 2008, during the peak of gas shortages and heightened consumer demand that followed Hurricane Ike," Jenkins said. " ... Customers requesting a refund must present a receipt that reflects the fuel purchase to the Fuel Center clerk before midnight on March 23, 2009."

According to OCA spokesman Shawn Conroy, credit card receipts are not acceptable because they generally do not break down everything that was purchased.

"If you look in your credit card bill, you may see a charge, but it doesn't tell you the grade of gas or if you may have bought a gallon of milk," he said. "You have to have the gas receipt."

Conroy said there were 2,000 complaints received by OCA during the fall of 2008 period when gas prices skyrocketed in the area and many stations closed due to short supply, reportedly as a result of Hurricane Ike on the Gulf Coast. The time period which the OCA is investigating is from Sept. 12 until Oct. 15.

He said as of March 12, 59 cases have been resolved. In 26 instances, the allegations of price-gouging were found to be unmerited; however, in 33 instances price-gouging was documented and fines and consumer restitution were ordered.

Conroy said the amount of the fines was negotiated by attorneys who looked at a variety of factors.

"They might look at how long the violations occurred. One day or six hours is going to be looked at differently than maybe two weeks," he said, adding that other factors might include the amount of money involved and whether or not there had been a previous violation.

"We had the same situation during Hurricane Katrina and had around 70 stations that we came to settlement with then. There are very few people who do it again. That's good for the businesses and it's good for us," he said.

The bulk of the fines went to nine Pilot Travel Center locations which jointly were required to pay $20,000 plus restitution. Also, the Citgo station at 2900 Evans Mill Road in Lithonia was required to pay $2,000 plus restitution.

The OCA is still investigating a number of cases and Conroy said those interested in more information or the outcome of pending cases should go to www.consumer.ga.gov.

Kroger customers with questions can call 800-KROGERS, Jenkins said.

Barbara Knowles can be reached at barbara.knowles@newtoncitizen.com