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Morrisey accused of discrimination in price gouging response

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A Putnam County storeowner accused of price gouging bottled water during the water crisis says Attorney General Patrick Morrisey discriminated against him because he is Lebanese, questioned him unethically and illegally leaked the charge to the media before informing him of it.

On Feb. 14, Morrisey filed suit in Putnam Circuit Court alleging that Achraf Assi's convenience stores, Hurricane-based Mid Valley Mart LLC, unfairly raised the price of Tyler Mountain Spring Water from $1.59 a gallon to $3.39 a gallon the day after the Jan. 9 chemical leak that contaminated the region's drinking water.

Morrisey alleged that Assi, who owns the two stores that allegedly sold water at inflated prices, kept the prices higher for a week following the chemical leak.

Assi's attorney, Tom Peyton, said his client sold the water for $3.39 a gallon because of the additional costs of providing clean water during the crisis and not because he wanted to price gouge during the water crisis.

Under West Virginia law, it is illegal for a business to increase the price of an emergency supply or essential consumer item by more than 10 percent during a declared state of emergency and for 30 days after.

Peyton filed a response to Morrisey's lawsuit on Friday.

He accused Morrisey of treating Assi differently than other storeowners who received similar price gouging complaints.

According to the response, Morrisey told media outlets that his office received more than 150 calls complaining about price gouging. Some "instances appear to have been an honest misunderstanding," Morrisey was quoted as saying.

But, Peyton claims, Morrisey never made any attempt to get a similar explanation from Assi.

"The attorney general made no attempt whatsoever to determine whether any of the pricing irregularities found by the attorney general as to Achraf Assi were honest misunderstandings or otherwise justified," the filing says.

Assi was treated differently because of his Lebanese descent, Peyton said in the response. Assi is an American citizen and has lived in Putnam County for more than a decade.

"The decision by the Attorney General to file the instant civil action against Assi, generally and in the specific manner in which it was handled<t40>...<t$>was motivated by improper considerations, including Mr. Assi's national origin," Peyton wrote.

In a statement Saturday evening, Morrisey spokeswoman Beth Ryan said the allegations against the attorney general are a distraction.

"The State's position is clearly expressed in its complaint," Ryan wrote in an email to the Gazette. "We stand by our assertions and understand that efforts will be made to distract attention away from the merits of the case."

On Jan. 15, an assistant attorney general visited Assi's store and issued an investigative subpoena, demanding documents before and after the chemical leak.

Assi, through counsel, provided Morrisey's office with all the documents requested, according to the response.

Peyton then sent a letter to Morrisey requesting that all further questions about Assi's business be forwarded to him. However, the response claims that on Jan. 29 Morrisey sent an agent to unethically interrogate Assi, without counsel present, and request more documents.

When Morrisey later filed a lawsuit against Assi, Peyton claims that the attorney general told media outlets about it, without informing Assi.

"The Attorney General did not provide Assi any statement of charges by any particular consumer prior to contacting the media and filing the instant civil action," the court filing says.

Peyton also claims that Morrisey defamed Assi and his business to several media outlets.

He said that Morrisey told local media that Assi "was a 'bad apple' and distinguished himself from other West Virginians 'with access to potable water [who] opened their homes and hearts to friends, family members and strangers so they could shower and get a warm meal," according to the filing.

Peyton said Assi posted multiple signs in his stores offering free, clean water. He also opened his house for strangers to take a shower, he said.

Peyton also filed a Freedom of Information Act request on Feb. 14, for all documents that Morrisey may have sent to media outlets, possibly informing them of the forthcoming lawsuit against Assi.

There was media present when Assi was served with a summons by Morrisey's office.

Morrisey's office has failed to provide documents in response to the FOIA, the filing said.

"The attorney general's failure to provide documents in response to the FOIA request, the timing of the media broadcast from WOWK 13 and the location of a WSAZ news camera at Mid Valley Mart in Teays Valley, W.Va. <t40>...<t$> all indicate the attorney general violated W.Va. code by purposefully feeding information about the investigation to the media prior to any disclosure.

Assi is seeking damages for harm to his reputation, embarrassment, lost earnings and attorney fees, among other things. He has requested a jury trial.

"The Attorney General intentionally treated Achraf Assi differently than others similarly situated," the filing says. "There is not a rational explanation for the difference in treatment."

Reach Travis Crum at travis.crum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5163.


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