By Ron Leir
Two area gas stations are among eight businesses accused of price gouging during the Hurricane Sandy state of emergency.
The Exxon station, 555 Riverside Avenue, Lyndhurst, and Delta Gas station, 141 Bloomfield Avenue, Bloomfield, are among seven gas stations and one hotel name in the allegations brought by the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs.
Others listed in the complaints filed on behalf of the Division by the state Attorney General’s Office were: the Kistruga/ Lukoil station, McBride Avenue, Paterson; George’s/ Gulf Station, Crooks Avenue, Clifton; Alen Service/Lukoil station, McCarter Highway, Newark; NJPO/BP station, Fayette Street, Perth Amboy; Couto & Sons/Sunoco station, Wilson Avenue, Newark; and Ratan Hospitality Group/Howard Johnson Express, Rt. 46 East, Parsippany.
State law defines price gouging as a price increase of 10% or higher before a declared state of emergency or for 30 days after the end of the emergency and not exceeding 10% of the markup from cost prior to the state of emergency.
Gov. Chris Christie declared a state of emergency, based on Hurricane Sandy, on 11:30 a.m. on Oct. 27.
The state’s complaint filed against S&D, LLC/Exxon in Lyndhurst on Nov. 8 in Bergen County Superior Court alleges that between 6:30 a.m. on Oct. 27 and 6:04 a.m. on Nov. 1, the state’s average price for regular gas rose, from $3.42 per gallon to $4.13 per gallon – an increase of nearly 20.6 percent.
And, the complaint says, during that same period of time, the state’s average price for supreme gas climbed, from $3.84 per gallon to $4.23 per gallon – a hike of nearly 10.15 percent. Moreover, according to the complaint, a Consumer Affairs investigator who visited the station on Oct. 31 found that it had posted prices for regular gas of $4.41 per gallon purchased with cash or $4.49 per gallon with credit card – increases of about 29 percent and about 31.3 percent, respectively.
That same day, the complaint says, the investigator found posted prices for supreme gas of $4.91 per gallon if purchased by cash or $4.99 per gallon with credit card – increases of about 28 percent and about 30.1 percent, respectively.
After the investigator identified himself to a station representative, the station’s personnel “immediately stopped pumping gas and a representative stated that (the station) was out of gas,” the complaint says.
And, the complaint goes on to note, “The day after Investigator (Brian) Morgenstern’s visit to (the station), Defendant lowered its price for motor fuel back down to the pre- State of Emergency prices” to about $3.42 per gallon for regular gas and to about $3.52 for plus gas and to about $3.79 for supreme gas.
And, the complaint concludes, “while Defendant’s cost paid to its supplier went up slightly after the State of Emergency was declared and Sandy made landfall in New Jersey, during the period of Oct. 29 to Oct. 31, its markup went up more than 10 percent.”
Legal papers filed with the court charges S & D, LLC, with excessive prices during emergencies and unconscionable commercial practices, both violations of the N.J. Consumer Fraud Act.
The Consumer Affairs office received 13 complaints about the Lyndhurst station, including one from Township Parks & Recreation Commissioner Tom DiMaggio, who was waiting on a gas line at the station and whose ire was aroused when he noticed the prices referenced in the state’s complaint.
Consumer Affairs spokesman Jeff Lamb said the Lyndhurst station is being represented by Elizabeth attorney Tony Espinosa. Efforts to reach his law firm were unavailing.
Lyndhurst Finance Commissioner Richard DiLascio said that, “after receiving numerous calls reporting (price gouging allegations about the station), Mayor Robert Giangeruso and the Lyndhurst Police Department investigated the situation and reported their findings to the appropriate authority. Action was taken, motorists were interviewed and a complaint filed.”
DiLascio credited the Consumer Affairs Division “for protecting the public at a most vulnerable time … against unconscionable profiteering practices.”
As for the Bloomfield complaint, the state alleged that Vinny Fuel Corp. trading as Delta Gas station, at 141 Bloomfield Ave., raised the price of regular gas from $3.19 per gallon to $3.99 per gallon, an increase of 25 percent, during the state of emergency. Consumer Affairs said it received six consumer complaints about this company. As of last week, Lamb said the state had received no response to the complaint from the owners.
Lamb said that each defendant is subject to civil penalties of up to $10,000 for the initial violation. He said the state hopes to arrive at some type of settlement with each of the accused companies but if that doesn’t work, the state will go to court for a trial.