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AG says office investigating price-gouging complaints

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said Thursday his office has received more than 150 price-gouging complaints during the water crisis, virtually all dealing with retailers overcharging for bottled water.

"We've been looking into an enormous number of complaints about price gouging," Morrisey told the Senate Finance Committee.

State law prohibits businesses from increasing prices for consumer goods and services by more than 10 percent during declared states of emergency.

Morrisey said after the meeting that one of the complaints being investigated alleges that a retailer was selling five-gallon jugs of water for $50.

He said virtually all of the complaints came in from Thursday evening to Saturday morning -- about the time widespread emergency distribution of free bottled water in the nine affected counties geared up.

Morrisey said, to date, the office has received 74 documented allegations of overcharging. "We're in the process of following up with letters and subpoenas," he said.

Violation of the price-gouging prohibition is a misdemeanor, punishable by fines of up to $1,000 and up to one year in jail.

Morrisey also said his office is beginning an investigation of the company that caused the chemical leak, Freedom Industries, in coordination with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Environmental Protection, and the U.S. Attorney's office.

"We want to work in a collaborative role with everyone," he said. "We definitely have a role to play -- an important role to play."

Morrisey declined to say Thursday what possible legal actions could be taken against the company by his office.

"We're looking at a wide variety of options," he said. "We're trying to get to the bottom of things. We want to separate myth from the facts."

Also during the budget presentation to the Finance Committee, Morrisey:

| Reiterated a call to expand legislative audits of state agencies. He cited recent audits of the attorney general's office, which found lack of internal controls and improper co-mingling of consumer protection funds; and of the Department of Agriculture, which raised issues of mismanagement of a $5 million revolving loan fund.

"I think we can find an enormous amount of waste if we went through these state agencies," he said, adding that the legislative auditor's office does not have enough staff to comply with a mandate to audit agencies every two years.

| Got into a lengthy exchange with Sen. Erik Wells, D-Kanawha, regarding his review of regulations for clinics in the state that perform abortions.

"West Virginia law permits abortions to be performed up to birth. That's not a myth -- that's a fact," Morrisey said. "That doesn't mean every single clinic or entity is doing it, but it is allowed under the law." "You can make that statement, but I'd like to see the facts," Wells replied.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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