Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is suing three Texas companies he believes were involved in price gouging in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
One of them, Bains Brothers, owns Texaco stations in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, including one in Arlington that received numerous complaints.
A second is a Robstown-area hotel near Corpus Christi; the third is a Laredo-area Chevron station.
“It’s unconscionable that any business would take advantage of Texans at their most vulnerable — those who are displaced from their homes, have limited resources, and are in desperate need of fuel, shelter and the basic necessities of life,” Paxton said Tuesday in a written statement.
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The lawsuits come as more than 3,320 complaints of price gouging across Texas, including 502 in Tarrant County, have been reported, according to records from the attorney general’s office.
Some complaints include comments that show the frustration when gasoline prices skyrocketed between Aug. 30 and Sept. 6 as many people rushed to fill up their vehicles, afraid gas would run out.
“Price gouging! This place charged me $4.99 for gas because of what’s going on right now in Texas!” one complaint read.
State law prevents companies from “charging exorbitant prices” for necessities ranging from gasoline to water to clothes during a disaster such as Harvey, a torrential storm that devastated some small beach-side communities before dumping more than 50 inches of rain on Houston in just a few days.
The penalty for price gouging in Texas can be as much as $20,000 per violation — and as much as $250,000 if the victim is 65 or older.
Hundreds of Tarrant County drivers reported dramatic spikes in gasoline prices after Harvey hit.
No gas companies were spared, with the complaints coming in against Chevron, Conoco, Exxon, Mobil, Shell and Valero. Convenience and grocery stores that sell gas were targeted as well, including Wal-Mart, QuikTrip, Big Willy’s and Kroger.
Many of those complaining reported long lines, gas shortages — and prices at the pump that were different from what was posted on the outside signs, according to a review of the Tarrant County complaints filed with the attorney general’s office.
Many complained that local prices were increased anywhere from 20 cents to several dollars per gallon.
Some even said they saw prices change as they pulled up to the pump.
“While sitting in line — next up attendant came out and changed price of gas from $2.69 to $3.99 gallon,” one person wrote of a station in Mansfield.
Several said they saw prices in Tarrant County as high as $9.99; several said they filled up for $5.99 a gallon.
Others reported prices differing between what was on the store sign and what was listed on the pump.
“Station was advertising unleaded gas for $2.99 a gallon at 2:23 pm on 8/31/2017 but when I filled up at the pump price was $5.99. 11.2 gallons of unleaded gas cost me $67.00. False advertising and price gouging.”
Some motorists were so worried about running out of gas that they filled up anyway.
“Gas was $5.99,” one complainant stated about filling up at a Fort Worth station. “Lines were so full at the nearest locations. I was told by people that gas was going to be out so I spent $50 in gas!”
And many reported that they asked clerks and fellow customers why the prices were so high.
“I asked why they were charging so much and they said because they could,” one complaint stated about filling up at an Arlington station.
‘We had to go up with the price’
As news broke that some gas stations were running on empty, Texas Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton emphasized that there wasn’t a gas shortage, simply a temporary distribution problem.
And he urged Texans to be patient.
One Texan wrote that he left Houston, where he bought gas for $2.10 a gallon, after helping with rescue efforts.
“Got back to FTW in a fake gas shortage and this station gouged prices from $2.10 to $3.39 and $3.59,” one complaint stated.
Cowtown Petroleum in Fort Worth was among the hundreds of Tarrant County gas stations reported to the state for alleged price gouging.
Wahid Dewan, owner of that station, said he didn’t raise his prices above $3.59 or so, unlike many stations that increased the cost much more.
“At some point, we had to go up with the price because I didn’t want my gas to go out,” he said. “If you’re finished with gas, you lose your sales on everything.”
He said he limited gas sales to $20 per vehicle so everybody who needed gas could get some. But he said his station did run out of gas, several times, as most local gas stations did.
Dewan said his station near downtown Fort Worth has gas now, although he struggles to keep super unleaded in stock.
He’s heard the complaints from consumers but what many may not realize, he said, is that his cost to buy gasoline has gone up as well.
“A customer came in and didn’t like the price of gas and complained,” Dewan said. “Did he call the supplier who supplied the gas to me? The cost of that went up. But when you come in, you only see me.
“There are so many times we don’t even make a penny off the gas. Do you come in and talk to me about it?” he asked. “It doesn’t matter if I make any money. The distributor makes money regardless of whether I make money. The state gets their taxes regardless of whether I make money or not.”
‘Taking extreme advantage’
Two of the three companies sued by the state are in the business of selling gasoline.
Bains Brothers, which own Texaco gas stations in Arlington, Carrollton, Dallas and Richardson, allegedly increased the cost of regular unleaded gasoline to $6.99 on Aug. 31 although signs advertised the price as between $3-$4 a gallon.
As a result, the state is seeking potentially more than $1 million in penalties, “consumer redress,” attorneys fees and other costs, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges that Bains Brothers charged $2.29 for a gallon of gas on Aug. 30 and less than 24 hours later charged $6.99 per gallon at two of its stores, the lawsuit states.
One complaint about the company submitted to the state: “Price gouging — gas station. Stated price on the sign outside was bad enough at $3.49. Actual price at the pump was a shameful $6.99. Taking extreme advantage of the Houston situation. Bains Brothers should be ashamed, prosecuted and fined substantially.”
At least nine complaints were made against the Bains’ station in the 2800 block of Northwest Green Oaks Boulevard in Arlington.
Calls to Bains Brothers corporate office and the Arlington location were not immediately returned Tuesday.
The other two companies were Encinal Fuel Stop, a Chevron gas station outside Laredo, reportedly on Aug. 31 charged between $8.99 and $9.99 a gallon for regular unleaded gas; and Robstown Enterprises, which was doing business as Best Western Plus Tropic Inn in Robstown, about 18 miles outside Corpus Christi.
The Tropic Inn “allegedly charged three times its normal room rate the weekend Hurricane Harvey hit.”
ABC News reported that Best Western said it was “immediately severing any affiliation” with the hotel after that incident.
“This hotel’s actions are contrary to the values of Best Western,” according to a statement from the hotel chain. “We do not tolerate this type of egregious and unethical behavior.”
Not all of the complaints were about the sale of gas.
One person went into a hardware store in Dallas to buy a one-gallon gas can and paid $22.99, $6 above normal.