The state of Florida is suing two Panhandle companies and three individuals for conspiring to fix gasoline prices over the past several years, resulting in inflated gasoline prices. The complaint cites actions that are "immoral, unethical and unscrupulous."

Fill-Ups Food Stores, Inc., Ryan E. Phillips of Niceville, and John W. Osburn of Navarre are among those named as defendants in the case. Other defendants include Tate Enterprises, Inc. and Robert E. Tate of Crestview.

An investigation into Panhandle gas prices began after Attorney General Charlie Crist's price-gouging hotline received a consumer complaint in the aftermath of Hurricane Dennis, which struck the state last July. Crist's office began an antitrust investigation when evidence of price fixing was uncovered.

The investigation also revealed that Phillips allegedly used threats and intimidation against his employees and competitors to obtain their cooperation and secure their silence.

"Our economy is based on free market competition," said Crist "These people conspired to fix gasoline prices and pick the pockets of Florida drivers."

The civil action alleges a price-fixing conspiracy that began as early as March 2003, when Shri Goyam, Inc. -- through one of its principals -- Prashant Shah, acquired a Crestview retail gasoline outlet from Tate Enterprises. As a condition of the sale, Robert Tate required that the new owners match the prices of gasoline at the other Crestview outlets still owned by Tate Enterprises.

When Shah lowered the prices at Shri Goyam's station, Tate called Shah to remind him of their agreement and insisted that he raise Shri Goyam's prices. Shah agreed and prices were raised.

In 2004, Ryan Phillips incorporated Phillips Oil, now known as Fill-Ups Food Stores. Shortly after, Phillips contacted Shah to obtain an agreement to raise gasoline prices at Shri Goyam's station to the same levels as those at the Fill-Ups Food Stores stations. Shah raised the prices by 15 cents per gallon to comply with Phillips' demand.

Osburn, an employee of Fill-Ups Food Stores, also controlled retail gasoline pricing at a competing gasoline station, the I-10 Mobil in Crestview. In 2005, Phillips directed Osburn to raise prices at Osburn's station to match those at Fill-Ups Food Stores and Osburn complied.

Phillips also contacted other gasoline retailers on more than one occasion in an unsuccessful effort to expand his price-fixing scheme in addition to threats and intimidation against his employees.

Prashant Shah and Shri Goyam have already settled for $75,000 in civil penalties and $10,000 in partial reimbursement for investigative fees and costs. Shah has also agreed to provide cooperation.

The complaint alleges that these price-fixing conspiracies violate Florida's antitrust laws and the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. The Antitrust Act provides for civil penalties of up to $1 million for corporations and $100,000 for individuals per violation.

Violations of the Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act carry penalties of up to $10,000 per violation or $15,000 if the victim is a person with a disability or a senior citizen.