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In the weeks after Hurricane Irma forced the largest mass evacuation in U.S. history, thousands of angry consumers swamped Attorney General Pam Bondi with complaints of price gouging by hotels, gas stations, retailers and restaurants.
Total complaints: 7,500.
Total settlements so far: 1.
Total amount: $24.579.
A small hotel near Miami International Airport admitted hiking room rates by as much as 138 percent in those frantic days over Labor Day weekend in early September just before Irma made landfall in the Keys and then Southwest Florida.
Bondi has 10 more active price gouging cases, including a Mexican restaurant in Tampa, hotels in Tarpon Springs and Coconut Grove, three South Florida gas stations and two propane distributors.
“Price gouging investigations are extremely time-intensive,” said Chief Deputy Attorney General Trish Conners.
Yet a consumer group asks why Bondi’s office can’t nail down a lot more examples of gouging.
“We were bombarded with Bondi’s many ads before, during, and after the storms,” said Bill Newton of the Florida Consumer Action Network in St. Petersburg. “We could not help question whether the ads were to mention her name or actually go after price gougers. It does seem like there should be more than one case.”
In the Miami hotel case, three people who scrambled to find shelter lodged formal complaints with Bondi’s consumer affairs division, which recently struck an agreement with the hotel.
The Miami Princess Hotel agreed to a restitution payment of $17,259, plus an additional $7,500 in civil penalties for a total of nearly $24,579.
The total restitution amount is based on the hotel’s records of rates charged during the 30 days prior to Sept. 4, when Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency.
In an out-of-court settlement known as an assurance of voluntary compliance, the hotel admitted overcharging customers during a state of emergency.
That’s a violation of the state Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act.
The settlement notes that the hotel resumed charging its normal rates on Sept. 16, long after Irma was gone.
The hotel, which advertises Jacuzzi rooms, theme rooms and free wifi on its website, miamiprincess.com, is owned by Alberto Valdes, who did not respond to several messages left at the hotel’s front desk.
One complainant, Charlene Ness of Pensacola, who was in Miami to help with debris cleanup, said she paid $203 a night for three nights, with taxes and fees, for rooms that usually cost about $70 a night .
“I definitely think they ripped me off,” Ness wrote in her complaint.
After three nights, she was able to relocate to a nearby Homewood Suites, “which is very nice for almost half as much,” she wrote.
The state will send Ness a refund of $325.20.
Ness declined an interview request.
James Seager of Hamilton, Ontario, was stranded in Miami when his flight to Canada was canceled. He took refuge at Miami Princess at 3 a.m. on Sept. 8.
Seager told the state his rate for the first night was $95, but the hotel hiked it to $200 for three additional nights.
When he asked the clerk why, Seager said, he got a one-word response: “Hurricane.”
“As a stranger with no USA cellphone and the storm starting, I paid the doubled price,” Seager said.
Seager told the Herald/Times in an email that Bondi’s response to his complaint restored his faith in “law and order.”
“When I made my complaint online, Florida contacted me promptly,” Seager wrote. “During our phone conversation, they seemed genuinely concerned. … The legal effort sends an important message. During times when the health and safety of others is at serious risk, predatory pricing should be not only be morally repulsive but legally constrained.”
He’ll get a refund of $315.
A third person, Daniel Trujillo of Miami, filed a complaint but didn’t stay there and so won’t get a refund.
Bondi’s spokesman, Whitney Ray, said customers who stayed at the hotel and file complaints by Jan. 7, 2018, are eligible for refunds.
In a statement, Bondi said: “I am very proud of all the hard work my office has done in the three months since Irma struck Florida. … We will continue to hold anyone who took advantage of Floridians during their time of need accountable.”
Bondi, a Tampa Republican, was elected in 2010 and re-elected in 2014. She cannot run again next year because of term limits.
Hurricane Irma forced more than 6.5 million people, or the equivalent of nearly a third of the state’s population, to evacuate.
On the night of Sept. 6, Bondi invited reporters to her consumer affairs unit, where 50 of her workers were working 15 hours a day and on weekends, fielding complaints of scams by Florida businesses.
She went on TV to ask people to file complaints online because the phone lines were jammed.
“If there are bad businesses out there, we know there are some, and we’re going to get to them to help you,” Bondi said on Sept. 6. “I want you to know that we take these complaints very seriously.”
Many early complaints were from the three most populous counties of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, and were about the cost of food, ice and water.
Bondi’s office said it received more than 14,000 calls and complaints during the state of emergency, including allegations about products not covered under Florida’s price gouging law such as air fares, and correspondence lacking basic information such as a business name or a product’s price.
The review resulted in 7,500 complaints that warranted closer scrutiny, Bondi’s office said.
The state said four of the nine open price gouging cases involve gas stations in Marathon, Okeechobee and Old Cutler, Suburban Propane and AmeriGas Propane.
Four involve hotels: the Mayfair Hotel & Spa in Coconut Grove; Aloft Miami Dadeland; Days Inn in Wildwood; and the Tarpon Inn in Tarpon Springs.
A ninth case involves a restaurant and produce stand, El Noa Noa in Tampa.
Price gouging cases can take a year or longer to resolve if they go through the courts.
One of Bondi’s predecessors, Charlie Crist, reached a $609,000 price gouging settlement with a North Carolina construction company that made repairs to beachfront condos following Hurricane Ivan in 2005. Crist’s office said it filed 15 price gouging lawsuits and recovered $1.5 million in restitution.
Crist’s predecessor, Bob Butterworth, had no price gouging law when his office chased after scam artists following Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
The Herald/Times requested yearly reports on price gouging cases by Crist and Butterworth during several years of high hurricane activity but they were not immediately available.