Pleasanton grocery market Apna Bazar pleaded guilty on Monday to two misdemeanor counts of price-gouging for significant markups of dry goods and produce last year during the early days of the state's COVID-19 emergency declaration, prosecutors said.
Under the plea agreement, Apna Bazar's parent company -- Apna Bazaar LLC -- will serve one year of misdemeanor probation and pay $20,000 to the Alameda County Community Food Bank in exchange for the remaining seven counts being dropped as well as the dismissal of all charges against store owner Rajvinder Pal Singh, a Dublin resident.
At the time charges were announced in May 2020, prosecutors said it was the first price-gouging case during a declared state of emergency on record in Alameda County. State law prohibits charging a price that exceeds the price of the item before the emergency declaration, by more than 10%.
Investigators allege receipts showed price increases between 60% and 400% for several grocery items sold at the Pimlico Drive market within the first month of Gov. Gavin Newsom's COVID-19 emergency declaration on March 4, 2020.
"The law prevents businesses from profiteering during a declared state of emergency. This case marks the first successful prosecution in Alameda County for price gouging in the time of the pandemic," District Attorney Nancy O'Malley said in a statement. "My office is committed to ensuring that businesses adhere to the law and do not exploit consumers."
Attorney Daniel Vaswani, who represented the company and Singh, did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.
The case was the result of a joint investigation by the DA's office and the California Department of Justice after authorities received "a chorus of complaints" against the Pleasanton store, according to O'Malley.
A DA's investigator scouring social media for reports of local price-gouging early in the pandemic found allegations on March 18, 2020 against Apna Bazar, a grocery market specializing in Indian products in the small shopping center at 4040 Pimlico Drive, near the Interstate 580-Santa Rita Road interchange.
In the ensuing probe, customer receipts and interviews found evidence of certain items marked up between 60% and 400% compared to their prices before the emergency declaration, according to prosecutors.
The lead investigator interviewed Singh on March 19, 2020, with the store owner reportedly saying suppliers had driven up the prices of certain items and he was merely passing through the costs to customers. But the owner failed to provide requested documentation justifying the significant price increases, prosecutors said.
As a result, county and state prosecutors charged the store and its owner on May 7, 2020 with misdemeanor counts of price-gouging on nine specific food items: yellow onions, ginger, green beans, loose black tea, small Thai chili hot peppers, pomegranates, red yams and two brands of quick-cook noodles.
Other Apna Bazar locations in the Bay Area were not part of the price-gouging investigation, according to prosecutors.
The defense and prosecutors reached an agreement to resolve the criminal case earlier this month, with the terms confirmed in court on Monday.
The plea deal saw Apna Bazaar LLC plead guilty to two misdemeanor counts of price-gouging of nonspecific "dry goods" and "produce." In exchange, the other seven counts against the company were dismissed, as were all nine counts against Singh.
The company was ordered to serve 12 months of misdemeanor court probation, though that term could be reduced once the company donates $20,000 to the county food bank -- another term of the plea deal.
"This year has been difficult for all of us, and many neighbors have needed a helping hand to ensure that their family members were nourished and remained healthy," Suzan Bateson, executive director of Alameda County Community Food Bank, said in a statement. "This donation will help us provide thousands of meals to children, adults and seniors."
O'Malley points out that under the governor's current emergency declaration, it is illegal to price-gouge on emergency and medical supplies. Anyone who thinks they've been the victim of illegally marked-up consumer prices can contact the DA's office at [email protected]