Georgia retail chain shuttered after investigation of fuel pump tinkering

| 5/13/2008

First, an anonymous caller tipped off the Georgia Department of Agriculture that one gas station was manipulating fuel pumps.

Later, an investigation into three fueling stations that had been bought and sold three times in as many years showed that truck stop operators intentionally and repeatedly programmed pumps to ring up 5 percent more fuel than motorists were pumping into their vehicles.

Now, a collection of truckers and motorists and Venezuelan-run fuel supplier Citgo have filed a flurry of lawsuits, and authorities in Georgia and Florida are pursuing other suits alleging violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act by the operators of Georgia fuel retailers Cisco Travel Plazas and a Cisco Express station.

Cisco Travel Plazas at Exit 1 and Exit 6 on Interstate 95 in Kingsland and St. Mary’s and the Cisco Express station at Exit 6 in Kingsland were all shuttered after the Georgia Department of Agriculture reportedly found motorists being shorted by one quart per every five gallons of fuel they pumped into vehicles. Investigators estimated in February that the shortage was about 5 percent.

Computer chip sensors common in newer fuel pumps were installed on the Cisco station pumps in 2005, and show repeated manipulation by the truck stops’ operators. One attorney representing plaintiffs of a class action civil suit is requesting that customers contact him if they bought fuel at the station between 1998 and February 2008.

Brunswick, GA attorney Nathan Williams represents truckers and motorists who are seeking $5 million after being overcharged by an estimated 5 percent at the Cisco truck stop pumps during the last few years.

Georgia regulators check fuel pumps every 12 to 18 months, Williams said, and were tipped off after an early February inspection that Cisco operators were manipulating the pumps immediately before and after inspectors visited to keep the pump volume variance within the allowed variance of 1 percent.

Complicating the matter is truck stop ownership. The Cisco franchises changed hands from Fairley Cisco to Cisco’s daughter in 2006 to Pakistani national Kuldeep Sekhon, who in turn sold the station’s to Biju Abraham in late 2007 or early 2008.

Abraham represents Global Energy’s ownership, Abraham’s attorneys have said, who lives in India. In the Sekhon-Abraham transaction, Abraham actually had power of attorney for both seller and buyer in the $24 million transaction.

“The whole thing is a mess,” Williams told Land Line.

In April, Fairly Cisco invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to testify against himself during a hearing in one of the civil racketeering suits.

Wesley Walker, Cisco’s son-in-law and a captain with the Camden County Sheriff’s Office, admitted that he had sat on his own investigation’s findings and had told no one that a former state department of agriculture employee accepted bribes to warn truck stop owners about upcoming inspections.

The three travel plazas are owned by Global Energy USA LLC, which agreed in February to pay $500,000 in fines – or $250,000 if no other problems with the pumps popped up.

In mid-April, the Georgia Department of Agriculture announced that pumps had been locked by the state until payment was made.

“They have failed to make the first payment of the monetary penalty due,” Commissioner of Agriculture Tommy Irvin said in a statement issued by his office.

“These pumps will remain locked until that monetary penalty is paid,” Irvin said.

One potential class-action civil lawsuit has been filed by several motorists and two trucking companies against Global Energy USA. Seeking $10 million in damages, the suit claims fuel and diesel sale discrepancies for up to the last six years.

Global Energy USA – based in Daytona Beach, FL – also is being sued by Citgo.

According to the civil lawsuit filed by Citgo, Global Energy has $2.8 million in recent unpaid purchase invoices owed the fuel supplier and may owe $5 million total.

Cisco Travel Center is familiar to OOIDA Member Leslie Duke of Hertford, NC.

Duke, who has joined one of the civil suits, says he regularly refilled his diesel tanks at the now defunct stations and was even enrolled in the company’s VIP program.

“I was a VIP customer. I was very important to them,” Duke said. “It just ticks me off to no end that they do that to the American trucker.”

Williams asked that anyone who bought gas or diesel at the stations call his law office at (912) 264-0848.

The case may continue to shed new light on fraud and corruption in the small Georgia town.

“They definitely got their hand caught in the cookie jar by at least 2005,” Williams said. “It’s pretty remarkable.”

– By Charlie Morasch, staff writer