CHARLESTON — West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey on Tuesday said his office has accepted an assurance of discontinuance from the owner of Putnam County convenience stores in which the owner admitted he improperly raised the price of water during a January 2014 state of emergency.
The attorney for Mid Valley Mart, however, says the AG's office used a technical violation of consumer protection law to promote his own agenda at the cost of the small business.
On Tuesday, Morrisey's office said Achraf Assi, the owner of Mid Valley Mart in Hurricane, admitted in the assurance that he improperly raised the price of some water products following a water crisis in January that resulted in a Do Not Use order impacting 300,000 West Virginians.
As part of the assurance, Assi agreed to pay the state a $5,000 fine and has promised to not violate consumer protection laws or other applicable state or federal laws in the future.
“This agreement is a victory for West Virginia consumers,” Morrisey said in a statement. “During the water crisis, we pledged to aggressively prosecute anyone who attempted to take advantage of West Virginians during their time of need. We filed a complaint against one business after finding numerous instances where prices of water products had been increased dramatically.
"The business owner attempted to distract people from the allegations by leveling untrue accusations against me. It is good to see the business owner taking responsibility for his actions.”
The AG's office said Assi also agreed to dismiss a counter claim he filed against Morrisey.
Later Tuesday, attorney Tom Peyton said Mid Valley Mart agreed to settle the matter because sales records did "indicate a technical violation of the consumer protection laws and the costs necessary to effectively fight the litigation instituted by the Attorney General are too great."
"In the big picture, Mid Valley Mart and its owners attempted to help the consumers in the local community who did not have potable water," said Peyton, who works for Peyton Law Firm in Nitro. "Unfortunately, the Attorney General utilized a technical violation of West Virginia consumer protection law to promote his own agenda at the cost of a local small business."
Peyton said Mid Valley Mart provided public access to free potable water, and store owners took friends and family members who were without potable water into their home.
"The Attorney General has unlimited government resources which far exceed the financial resources of Mid Valley Mart," he said. "The settlement amount of $5,000 represents a number which is significantly less than the attorney fees and litigation costs already incurred by Mid Valley Mart as a result of the Attorney General's lawsuit."
On Jan. 9, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency in parts or all of nine West Virginia counties after a chemical leak resulted in at least 10,000 gallons of crude MCHM being released into the Elk River and contaminating the water supply.
Under West Virginia law, it is illegal for a business to increase the price of an emergency supply or essential consumer item by more than 10 percent during a declared state or emergency and for 30 days after, whichever is longer.
In this state of emergency, bottled water was deemed to be an essential consumer item because the West Virginia-American Water Co. issued a do-not-use order restricting consumers from using it for cooking, cleaning, bathing or even laundry.
The original complaint alleged Mid Valley Mart LLC increased the price of gallon jugs of water to $3.39 on the morning of Jan. 10 at its two stores, which are located at 3706 Teays Valley Road and 2494 U.S. 60 in Hurricane. Previously, the store sold similar gallons of water for $1.59. The complaint also detailed one consumer who was charged more than $40 for twelve (12) 1-gallon jugs of water.