20 stations in Augusta area part of probe

ATLANTA --- Twenty of the 166-plus gas stations under scrutiny for price gouging during Georgia's recent gas shortage are in metro Augusta, according to the Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs.

But don't expect sanctions to be leveled anytime soon. Shawn Conroy, a spokesman for the Office of Consumer Affairs, said it might take more than six months before the agency sorts through the stations' financial records and attempts to reach settlements with owners of each station found in violation of Georgia's anti-gouging law.

Most gouging investigations after Hurricane Katrina took six months to a year to complete, he said.

Eleven of the stations are in Richmond County, and nine are in Columbia County, Mr. Conroy said. He would not identify the stations under investigation because the cases are ongoing. Penalties would be made public when the cases are closed, he said.

"We've reviewed complaints sent in by consumers and determined there's enough there that we want to know more about the way these particular stations raised their prices," he said.

Gov. Sonny Perdue invoked the anti-gouging law in late September after hurricanes disrupted production at refineries near the Gulf of Mexico, almost immediately driving up gas prices in Georgia. The law requires that stations maintain the same margin of profit on gas they sell before and after supplies are disrupted.

Penalties can range from $2,000 to $25,000, with the higher penalty typically assessed when disabled or elderly customers are involved, Mr. Conroy said.

After the hurricanes, Georgia received more than 1,600 complaints about price gouging, with some reports of stations charging more than $9 a gallon.

Reach Jake Armstrong at (404) 589-8424 or jake.armstrong@morris.com.