Hotel owners arrested

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 17, 2006

NATCHEZ &8212; Two Natchez hotel owners were arrested Monday in connection with state investigations into price gouging in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The Attorney General&8217;s Office has been looking into reports about the Excellent Inn & Suites and Scottish Inn since shortly after the storm Director of Consumer Protection Grant Hedgepeth said.

Owners Alex Patel and Sonal A. Patel were each charged with 16 counts of price gouging and one count of conspiracy to commit price gouging. The men jointly own both Natchez hotels.

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One count alleges that the room rate at the Excellent Inn went from $93.50 one day to $198 soon after. Price hikes vary in the other counts and are sometimes as low as a $15 increase, Hedgepeth said.

All the counts fall in the weeks after Katrina when every Miss-Lou hotel room was full, most with evacuees from New Orleans and the coast.

&8220;We&8217;ve got other price gouging investigations going on in the state of Mississippi,&8221; Hedgepeth said. &8220;There are quite a few. This is the first wave of indictments.&8221;

Some of the counts against the Natchez men are felonies &8212; cases involving more than $250 &8212; he said. A felony price gouging conviction is punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

The men were booked into that Adams County Jail and later released on $30,000 bond Monday. Any court proceedings will be handled in Adams County, Hedgepeth said.

Hedgepeth said other investigations in the state are ongoing.

&8220;We&8217;ve just had so many of them it&8217;s taken a while for the meat to get through the system,&8221; he said. &8220;When we find what is sufficient evidence we are going to seek indictments and prosecute these people.&8221;

Hedgepeth said the Attorney General&8217;s Office has authorized hiring more investigators to work similar cases and staff a Biloxi office that will specialize in home repair fraud &8212; a new crime emerging in the wake of Katrina.