Attorney General Ellison begins crackdown on COVID-19 pandemic profiteering
AG’s office pursuing numerous investigations — files first Assurance of Discontinuance, sends warning letter to Menards
March 24, 2020 (SAINT PAUL) — Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison has begun a statewide crackdown on people and businesses engaged in “pandemic profiteering.” The Attorney General’s Office began its enforcement efforts immediately after Executive Order 20-10 went into effect at 5:00 p.m. on Saturday, March 21, 2020. The Executive Order bans price-gouging on essential goods and services during the COVID-19 peacetime emergency.
Today, Attorney General Ellison’s office entered into an Assurance of Discontinuance with Downtown Smoke Shop, Inc. in Saint Paul, and sent a warning letter to Menards.
To date, the Attorney General’s Office has received more than 300 price-gouging complaints on goods and services deemed essential in the Executive Order. These complaints most commonly relate to toilet paper and other paper products, rice, cleaning/sanitation products, face masks, eggs, butter, and water. In just the past four days, the Office’s enforcement staff have made more than 70 visits to Minnesota retail stores to survey prices and investigate complaints of price gouging.
“I will do everything in my power to help ensure Minnesotans can afford their lives and are protected from pandemic profiteering by people who are trying to line their pockets during this crisis at Minnesotans’ expense,” Attorney General Ellison said. “We need Minnesotans’ help with this mission, too. I strongly urge anyone who sees any price-gouging on essential goods in their community to report it to my office immediately. We’ll get right on it.”
Downtown Smoke Shop, Inc. Assurance of Discontinuance
The Attorney General’s crackdown has resulted in its first Assurance of Discontinuance, which resolved the price-gouging practices of Downtown Smoke Shop Inc. (“Smoke Shop”). The Office conducted a “secret shopper” investigation at Smoke Shop and discovered it was selling toilet paper for $2.99 for one roll, $4.99 for two rolls, and $79.99 for a pack of 36 rolls. The store was also selling one-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer for $4.99, and packs of six nitrile exam gloves for $2.99 and twelve nitrile exam gloves for $4.99. The Assurance requires Smoke Shop to cease selling these products — none of which they carried before the COVID-19 pandemic — and to fully comply with Executive Order 20-10. Should Smoke Shop violate the terms of the Assurance, the Attorney General’s Office will move to impose a $30,000 stayed civil penalty against the company. A copy of the Assurance, which was filed in Ramsey County District Court yesterday, is available on Attorney General Ellison’s website.
Warning Letter to Menard, Inc.
This morning, the Attorney General’s Office also sent a warning letter to Menards, putting it on notice that the Office has received and is actively investigating numerous reports that it is engaged in price-gouging in violation of Executive Order 20-10. For example, the Office has received complaints that between January and early March, when the COVID-19 pandemic was growing, it increased the price of a 32-ounce bottle of Formula 409 Multi-Surface Cleaner by 55%, from $2.74 to $4.99. The Office has received similar complaints about other cleaning supplies and face masks sold at Menards locations throughout Minnesota. The letter asks Menards to cooperate with the Office’s investigation by providing information and documentation about these price increases by March 27. A copy of the warning letter the Office sent to Menards is available on Attorney General Ellison’s website.
Minnesotans can report suspected price-gouging on essential goods, both of which are defined in Governor Walz’s peacetime emergency Executive Order 20-10, to the Attorney General’s Office by filling out the Office’s dedicated online price-gouging complaint form. When reporting price-gouging, it is particularly helpful if you provide the Office with receipts and/or photos of the listed prices you believe are excessive. You can also report price-gouging to the Office by calling (651) 296-3353 (Metro) or (800) 657-3787 (Greater Minnesota).