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Merchants cleared of gouging after storm

In the aftermath of the March storm, many flood-plagued residents accused local carpet cleaners and merchants of jacking up prices illegally.

But the state attorney's office, after months of close study, announced Monday that so far it has not caught any business owner breaking the state's so-called "price gouging" law in Citrus.

Prosecutors received nine formal complaints of unfair business practices in Citrus County, Assistant State Attorney John C. Norman told reporters Monday.

Of the seven cases the state has cleared, none has resulted in civil action as provided by the law. "All I can tell you is they did not, in our opinion, violate the statute," Norman said.

The law states that during a declared state of emergency, a merchant may not charge prices that "grossly exceed" what had been charged 30 days before the storm or natural disaster, Norman said. The "grossly exceed" standard is not clearly defined in the law.

The Citrus residents contended that carpet cleaners charged outrageous sums for work. Two Crystal River women said a company charged too much to check out their water-logged appliances.

The state sent letters to the merchants in question and asked them to defend their actions. It then checked out a widely used industry book that details basic prices for services.

In the end, prosecutors determined that the seemingly high prices were justified because the storm damage made the jobs so difficult.

Leonard Hyde's complaint is an example. The Homosassa man contended that Advanced Cleaning Service of Homosassa charged hundreds of dollars for basic service.

But in his letter to the state, Advanced owner Mark Hanisch pointed out that he drained a half-inch of water from the house, removed furniture, lifted the carpet, removed padding and put the furniture back.

Hanisch said he went easy on his bill and, at the end, gave Hyde a 10 percent discount.

If the state decided a company had broken the law, prosecutors would file an action in civil court asking a judge to levy high fines against the offending merchant. The law does not provide for any prosecution in the criminal courts.

Norman said that under the law, which was enacted in late 1992, merchants could be fined as much as $1,000 per offense.

The other companies cleared of wrongdoing were Venero and Son Inc. of Inverness, Aaron's Carpet Cleaning of Brandon, AAA Roofing and Supply Inc. of Crystal River, American Steamer Inc. of Hernando and Stanley Steemer Carpet Cleaner of Inverness.

Prosecutors did not release information about the other two companies because the cases are pending.