|By Matt Griswold, The Bradenton Herald, Fla.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Aug. 24, 2004 - BRADENTON, Fla. -- Florida's attorney general on Monday filed a lawsuit alleging price gouging against a Manatee County hotel, saying Airport Inn management purposefully increased room prices for residents seeking emergency shelter from Hurricane Charley.
The lawsuit says that the Airport Inn, 8440 N. Tamiami Trail, employed "unconscionable, deceptive and unfair" business practices when it charged guests more than 80 percent more than the hotel's typical rates.
Repeated phone messages to Airport Inn officials seeking comment Monday afternoon and evening went unreturned Monday.
If convicted, the hotel could be fined more than $30,000.
Attorney General Charlie Crist told the Herald on Monday that his office is always open-minded about settling out of court, but emphasized how seriously he takes price-gouging charges.
"We're going to be very aggressive," Crist said. "This is not what citizens in need deserve. They need an outpouring of support. We will prosecute to the fullest extent of the law."
Of more than 3,200 complaints of price gouging, the attorney general's office has filed just four lawsuits, the state's top prosecutor said.
In addition to price gouging, the complaint accuses the Airport Inn of deceptive and unfair trade practices. The Attorney General's Hurricane Task Force determined that no fewer than five individuals or groups, many of them age 60 or older, were charged $75 or $100 for a one-night stay on Aug. 12 or Aug. 13.
The task force discovered that for the 30 days prior to Gov. Jeb Bush's declaration of a state of emergency on Aug. 10, Airport Inn rooms typically rented for $55 per night.
Bradenton residents Roger and Janice Johnson were among the guests who complained.
Roger Johnson, 69, had been scrambling all around Bradenton to find a vacant hotel room for him and his wife on Aug. 12 before stumbling across some available rooms at the Airport Inn, he said Monday.
He reserved a room for $100. By chance, he said, people having breakfast in the same restaurant Friday morning told him that they secured a room at the same hotel for $55. When he inquired about getting the same rate, the hotel clerk said it wouldn't be possible, Johnson said.
"About 8:30 Friday night, we asked if we could have our money back," Johnson said. "They wouldn't let us. The clerk told us we should've checked out when we got there."
Manatee County's 12th Judicial Circuit Court will hear the case, Crist said.
"It's important to understand that the vast majority of people responding to this disaster are donating money and reducing prices," the attorney general said. "Some, unfortunately, try to take advantage of difficult situations."
To report suspected price gouging, call the Florida Attorney General's price gouging hotline at (800) 646-0444 or fill out a complaint form online at http://myfloridalegal.com/contact.nsf/contact.
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