NASHVILLE - With Democrats on the attack, Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Haslam defended Pilot Corp., the company his family founded that is accused of price gouging on gas.
"When you have that many employees, there are bound to be occasional issues," said Mr. Haslam, a former Pilot president who is now Knoxville's mayor, in a statement issued Thursday. "The company's commitment always has been to deal with those issues quickly and in the best interests of its customers. I'm sure that's what is happening this time."
On Thursday, Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper announced the chain of travel centers was among 16 companies and individuals settling gas price-gouging claims with the state.
Earlier, Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester slammed Mr. Haslam in a statement, saying Mr. Cooper "helped consumers strike back against corporate greed."
BY THE NUMBERS
* $121,000 - Total of settlements
* $73,447 - Potential customer restitution
* 27 - Gas stations involved
* 16 - Companies and individuals involved
Source: Tennessee attorney general's office
The settlement with Pilot and other companies and individuals came in the wake of complaints and findings that 27 gas stations in East and Middle Tennessee charged unfair markups to consumers after Hurricane Ike shut down oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico in 2008, causing prices to spike. None of the stations were in Chattanooga, but there were some in the Winchester area.
"In the wake of a natural disaster, oil companies made a huge profit at the expense of drivers all over the country," Mr. Forrester said. "I'm happy that Tennesseans are finally getting their money back."
Mr. Cooper's office provided figures showing Pilot Corp. and Pilot Travel Centers paid $23,334.80 in restitution, civil penalties of $12,000 and attorney fees of $1,000.
Settlements for all the stations involved total $121,000, and about $73,447 will be available for consumer restitution when the settlements are signed by a judge, Mr. Cooper's office said.
Tennessee laws make a distinction between profits and profiteering. Under the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act, Mr. Cooper said, "it is unlawful to unreasonably raise the price of an essential consumer good in response to a natural disaster, crime, or act of terrorism regardless of whether those events occurred in Tennessee or somewhere else."
In his attacks on Mr. Haslam, Mr. Forrester said that in "2010, we will need a governor who will look out for the Tennesseans who are struggling to keep their jobs and provide for their families. I just hope that Bill Haslam doesn't treat the voters of Tennessee like his family's company treated drivers in Powell."
A Pilot station in Powell, Tenn., was one of the four Pilot stations cited by Mr. Cooper over allegations it engaged in unlawful price hikes as defined under the Tennessee Price Gouging Act of 2002 and the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act.
Asked by reporters about Pilot earlier in the day, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, who actively is exploring a gubernatorial bid, said, "I don't want to bring that up - yet. The fact that's the third state that's happened in, I wasn't going to point that out."
Pilot settled similar claims of price gouging in Georgia and Kentucky, according to news accounts.
Efforts to contact U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., a GOP gubernatorial candidate, were unsuccessful.
But Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ward Cammack issued a statement saying, "government should never allow unscrupulous businesses to take advantage of consumers during times of crisis. As governor, my administration will build on Gov. Bredesen's vigilance in cracking down on such indefensible actions."