Spot audits of 5,000 service stations during the past five months found 2,000 had overcharged customers for gasoline, in violations, the Energy Department announced yesterday.
As a result of the nationwide audits, the department issued 566 violation notices -- the first step in instituting legal proceedings -- as well as issuing 1,307 consent orders, where the station admits overcharging and voluntarily agrees to roll prices back to the legal level.
The department also found 153 cases of overcharging that were severe enough to issue interim remedial orders for immediate compliance. That means that legal actions were initiated against the violating stations, and they were also ordered to roll back prices until the case is resolved.
From the audits, based largely on the department's public complaint hotline installed last winter, DOE collected more than $160,000 in penalities. The amount of the penalities varied from station to station, depending on the extent of the overpricing.
In Washington and the Maryland, and Virginia suburbs, a DOE spokesman said audits of 244 area stations turned up 61 price violators. Forty-seven consent order were signed, five violation notices were issued, and the department found nine cases of overcharging severe enough to isue orders for immediate compliance.
The department said it collected $7,525 in penalities in the area. The most severe case of overpricing was an area station charging 12 cents per gallon over DOE's allowable limit.
The largest number of violators were found in Los Angeles, where 409 cases of overpricing were uncovered. The agency collected $26,035 in penalties from Los Angeles alone. Twelve cases were severe enough to warrant remedial compliance orders, a department spokesman said.
After Los Angeles, the most cases of overcharging were found in Pittsburgh with 155, Detroit with 118, Chicago with 115, Cleveland with 91, and New York with 86 violators.
New York and Pittsburgh both had the highest number of severe violations -- 44 each -- to warrant remedial compliance orders.
The 5,000 stations audited were targeted in areas where DOE officials from the department's Economic Regularoty Administration thought violations were mostly likely to occur.
A DOE spokesperson said that the agency has received about 30,000 public complaints of overpricing since the hotline was established in February. That nationwide telephone system was created to help DOE enforce its pricing regulations that went into effect that same month.
To follow up on the phoned-in complaints DOE sent out 21,000 warning letters to station operators, the spokesperson said. The 5,000 stations audited were usually targetted be-audited were usually targeted because of repeated complaints of over-pricing.
The penalities collected will go into an escrow account until any pending legal disputes are resolved, when it will then be turned over to the Treasury.