ST. PAUL -- A handful of Minnesota's top officials were looking into rumors of price gouging on gasoline Wednesday, a day after terrorist attacks prompted motorists across the state to wait in long lines to fill their tanks.
Attorney General Mike Hatch said the phones in his office were "inundated" with calls about possible price gouging, with a few stations apparently charging $4 or $5 per gallon.
Hatch cautioned that some of the calls may have been people who had simply heard rumors.
"There's a lot of urban legends out there," he said.
But Commerce Commissioner Jim Bernstein said he has talked to two retailers who had hiked prices and asked them to lower their prices. One said he would think about it.
"One of them said as long as people are going to pay $4 per gallon, I'm going to charge $4 a gallon," Bernstein said.
Hatch's office plans to serve any gas station that consumers say is price gouging a civil investigative demand requiring the station disclose the dates and prices of its wholesale gas purchases over the past 50 days.
The demand also would ask -- among other things -- each gas station to state the retail price charged on an hourly basis for Sept. 11 through Sept. 18. Stations would have 15 days to respond.
The attorney general's office has little authority over price gouging unless antitrust or consumer fraud laws are being violated, but Hatch said sometimes outrage can be more of a deterrent than fines or even a few days in jail.
"It's an issue of moral outrage," he said. "Let's be patriotic about it. Let's not take advantage."
The list of responses from stations would be made public at a Sept. 26 legislative hearing organized by Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston.
"From our hearings, we may find we need to give the attorney general more teeth to prosecute for price gouging," Davids said.
Davids and Hatch said they weren't looking to embarrass stations that increased their prices by 10 cents or 20 cents in the normal course of business, but rather the businesses charging $4, $5, or $6 per gallon.
"I'm all for the free market, but government will need to step in sometimes when the free market is being abused," Davids said.
Kurt Bohnen, president of the Minnesota Service Station Association, said he expected pump prices to increase about 12 to 15 cents by Wednesday.
"Prices are going to skyrocket until we find out what's going on here," Bohnen said.
So far, however, there haven't been widespread massive price hikes in Minnesota.
While a sign at the Mills Fleet Farm in Oakdale gave the price as $6.00 a gallon for unleaded on Tuesday night, store officials said they never charged that price and that the actual price Wednesday morning was $1.99.
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