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 this week.
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.
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."
In other news
* Federal authorities filed a criminal complaint last week against a San Francisco daycare worker for possession of child pornography.
Jace Wong, 26, who previously worked at a child care facility in Livermore, posted a series of videos and still photos in a private chat group on the social media platform Kik, according to an affidavit submitted April 13 to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California by FBI Special Agent Benjamin Burnheimer.
The chat group was called "Younger love (heart emoji) (heart emoji)," and according to an undercover officer working with the FBI, was used to share "child sexual abuse material."
The affidavit alleges that Wong posted three videos and two still photos on April 9. The undercover officer then engaged Wong in chat on Kik about the images. Wong allegedly asked if the officer was interested in trading "content," then sent a 36-second video of a young girl.
Wong was arrested on April 13 and then interviewed by authorities. According to the affidavit, at that time Wong admitted that he had sent and received sexually explicit photos of minors on Kik, including at least three videos taken at the San Francisco daycare facility.
During the interview, Wong allegedly showed agents a hidden file on his phone with 428 media files, "many of which contained videos and images of minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct."
Wong has previously worked in other daycare facilities, including one in Livermore that has not been publicly identified. According to the affidavit, agents are working to identify those facilities.
Wong is charged with possession of child pornography, which carries a maximum penalty of imprisonment for 20 years and a fine of up to $250,000.
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