Three Mt. Pleasant Gasoline Retailers Pay $20,000
Each in Case of Alleged Price-Fixing Activity
Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said today that three retail gasoline sellers have paid the State $20,000 each in connection with alleged efforts to fix gas prices in Mount Pleasant.
"We alleged that the retailers violated antitrust laws by communicating among competitors to influence prices," Miller said.
The three retailers signed an "Assurance of Voluntary Compliance," in which they agreed to pay $20,000 each to the state and to fully comply with Iowa competition laws. The agreement also provides for automatic civil penalties if there are future violations.
The retailers are Larry Bentler, president of Jet Gas Corporation; Tony Fedler, president of Fedler and Company; and Robert Lamm, manager of Dickey's Prairie Home. All are from the Mount Pleasant area. Although the "assurance" resolves matters regarding the retailers named today, Miller's office did not rule out additional action against others.
Miller said that there was evidence of telephone calls and other contacts in which competing retailers would discuss gas prices. "We even had reports that, in some instances, there were discussions between competitors of plans to increase gas prices a specific amount at a specific time of day," he said. More often, there appeared to be less specific but improper communications regarding prices, he said.
"Retailers who broke ranks by maintaining too low a price sometimes got a call from a competitor wanting to know what the problem was. Real competition that results in lower prices is not a problem that one retailer should have to explain to another," he said.
"Vigorous price competition is the way a free market is supposed to work."
The $60,000 paid by the three retailers will go to an antitrust fund created by the Iowa Legislature and will help fund efforts to enforce state competition laws. Individual consumer refunds were impossible to determine because there is no way to reliably identify specific customers or losses during the periods in question, Miller said.
Miller said his office receives periodic inquiries from citizens who wonder if gas prices are being manipulated in their communities. Competitors often move their prices at about the same time without colluding, simply because they closely watch one another's prices. But sometimes there is improper communication between competitors about prices, and in those cases Miller said it is very helpful for authorities to receive tips from insiders who observe price-fixing activity.
He said it was difficult to assemble the Mt. Pleasant case, and that numerous sworn statements were taken and witnesses interviewed in order to assess the extent of illegal activity by the retailers.
Miller said Iowa law can provide both civil and criminal remedies for price-fixing, and that his office would employ criminal charges if the facts warranted them in the future.