ST. PAUL — Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said Tuesday, March 24, that his office has begun a statewide crackdown on people and businesses engaged in “pandemic profiteering,” including a downtown St. Paul smoke shop accused of charging $79.99 for a 36-roll pack of toilet paper.
Also Tuesday, the attorney general’s office sent a warning letter to Menards, putting the Eau Claire-based retailer on notice that the office has received and is actively investigating reports of alleged price-gouging of products at stores.
The attorney general’s office began its enforcement effort following Gov. Tim Walz’s March 21 executive order that bans price-gouging on essential goods and services during the COVID-19 peacetime emergency.
According to the attorney’s office, more than 300 price-gouging complaints have been filed, most relating to toilet paper and other paper products, rice, cleaning/sanitation products, face masks, eggs, butter and water.
Over the past four days alone, the office’s enforcement staff has made more than 70 visits to retail stores to survey prices and investigate complaints.
The crackdown led to the office’s first “assurance of discontinuance,” filed Monday in Ramsey County District Court against Downtown Smoke Shop.
According to the court filing, the office conducted a “secret shopper” investigation at the business located at 381 Minnesota St. and discovered it was selling toilet paper for $2.99 for one roll, $4.99 for two rolls and $79.99 for a 36-roll pack. The store was also allegedly selling one-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer for $4.99; packs of six nitrile exam gloves for $2.99; and 12 nitrile exam gloves for $4.99.
Under terms of the court filing, Downtown Smoke Shop CEO Mahir Safi agreed to cease selling the products — none of which they carried before the pandemic, according to the attorney’s office. A violation could result in a $30,000 stayed civil penalty against the business.
Safi could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
The warning letter to Menards stems from complaints alleging that between January and early March, when the COVID-19 pandemic was growing, the retailer increased the price of a 32-ounce bottle of Formula 409 Multi-Surface Cleaner by from $2.74 to $4.99.
The attorney’s office said it has received similar complaints about other cleaning supplies and face masks sold at Menards locations throughout Minnesota. The letter asks Menards to cooperate with the office’s investigation by providing information and documentation about the price increases by March 27.
Last week, Michigan’s attorney general sent a cease-and-desist letter to the retailer after receiving 18 complaints from consumers about face masks, bleach and other products being sold at high prices.
A message left for a Menards spokesman Tuesday seeking comment was not immediately returned.
“I will do everything in my power to help ensure Minnesotans can afford their lives and are protected from pandemic profiteering by people who are trying to line their pockets during this crisis at Minnesotans’ expense,” Ellison said in a statement Tuesday.
Ellison said consumers can report suspected price-gouging online at the office’s website or by calling them 651-296-3353 or 800-657-3787.
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