CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The attorney for a Putnam County convenience store owner claims state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey is using his client to try to score political points and generate publicity for himself.
“The way that he has played this to the press, it appears to me, in my opinion, to be (him) using this as a political tool for some reason,” said Tom Peyton, a Nitro attorney, who represents Achraf Assi, the owner of two Mid Valley Mart convenience stores in Hurricane.
Last Friday, Morrisey filed a civil complaint in Putnam County Circuit Court against Assi and an unnamed manager alleging price gouging in the wake of the Jan. 9 chemical leak on the Elk River when 300,000 residents in parts of nine counties were told not to drink their tap water.
It’s a civil lawsuit based on alleged consumer protection violations. In the filing, Morrisey said the price of a one gallon jug of Tyler Mountain spring water was $1.59 during the ten days before the water emergency at the Mid Valley Marts, but jumped to $3.39 on Jan. 10.
State law prohibits businesses from increasing prices for consumer goods and services by more than a set percentage during declared states of emergency.
Assi told WSAZ Television the $1.59 price cited was for a liter of water, not a gallon because the store only started selling gallon jugs in the days after the water emergency to meet increased demand. Additionally, he said he was allowing people to fill up gallon jugs for free from taps at the stores which are located within the Putnam Public Service District.
Only West Virginia American Water Company customers fell under the do-not-use water order.
Peyton, a guest on Monday’s MetroNews “Talkline,” called some of Morrisey’s actions “unusual for a civil case.”
He said, on Assi’s behalf, he provided receipts to the AG’s office on Jan. 24th after Assi received an investigative subpoena, which is confidential. Peyton said, despite his request for a professional courtesy, he was not notified of Morrisey’s filing before it happened.
However, Peyton said, it appeared many news outlets were tipped off since a television camera from WSAZ Television was present when Assi received his notification of the lawsuit. Peyton said that typically does not happen with civil cases because they are not made public until they’re filed.
“There were things that were done, in the manner in which this case was handled, that was out of the ordinary,” said Peyton. “I wouldn’t ordinarily run to the press on a civil case but, unfortunately, Mr. Morrisey has instigated that process himself.”
Morrisey spoke with MetroNews on Friday after the complaint was filed. “I am not going to tolerate people taking advantage of our citizens during times of emergency,” he said of the complaint filing. “This is a bad apple and it’s important that the citizens of our state know that their attorney general is going to enforce the law.”
Peyton said Assi’s livelihood is on the line. “Mr. Assi now has the problem with the press being apprised of the fact that the attorney general, who has some clout or should, has accused of him of price gouging which could have a devastating effect upon his business,” said Peyton.
“Serious allegations have been made by the attorney general, so we need to put in the time, review the employees who work in Mr. Assi’s store, review their records, maybe some surveillance video and try and figure out what happened here.”
In all, Morrisey recently told state lawmakers his office received more than 150 complaints of alleged price gouging during the water emergency and investigations into some of those complaints were continuing.