A Vermont judge is weighing whether a businessman charged outrageous prices for protective equipment during the coronavirus crisis or if he was simply setting a fee that let him cover his costs and make a living.
Prosecutors in the office of Attorney General T.J. Donovan have accused Shelley Palmer, of Williston, of price-gouging when it came to selling medical masks.
Donovan’s team calls the price of $2.50 per surgical mask that Shelley charged Central Vermont Medical Center “immoral” and “unconscionable.” The prosecutors accused Palmer of profiting off the pandemic, saying the masks would have cost just $.06 before the new coronavirus.
“It’s like charging a thirsty person in the desert $100 for a bottle of water,” Assistant Attorney General Justin Kolber told Judge Helen Toor Wednesday. “That person is going to pay it no matter what the price is.”
Kolber is asking Toor for an order that would prevent Palmer from selling masks to medical providers at inflated prices.
“The attorney general lied,” Palmer countered in an interview with NECN & NBC10 Boston. “He slandered me.”
Palmer insisted he did not charge unreasonable prices for the simple surgical masks he sold CVMC in mid-March, when the hospital was looking to stock up on hard-to-find supplies as COVID-19 infections were increasing.
“I sold them for a very reasonable price — they were happy at it,” Palmer said. “I didn’t mark anything up any 2500%.”
Palmer pointed out it now costs much more to import protective gear from China to the U.S., so claimed he isn’t pocketing as much off those $2.50 masks as he said the state thinks he is.
Prosecutors cited an invoice from China that indicated the masks sent to Vermont cost a dime, but Palmer said that number was inaccurate, and only what a shipper wrote on a customs form.
The masks actually set Palmer back roughly $0.55 apiece, he said, and additional business fees drove the actual cost north of a dollar per mask.
However, the attorney general’s office told Toor that during a state of emergency, it still views that much of a markup as inappropriate.
Kolber pointed to video of Palmer also trying to sell masks to an urgent care facility, and told the judge in that footage, Palmer implies his basic surgical masks were N95 masks. Such masks have more advanced safety features than the ones Palmer was selling really did.
The staff at the urgent care office is seen in the video showing Palmer what a high-grade N95 mask really looks like.
“During times of crisis, a person’s willingness to pay becomes compromised,” Kolber told the judge. “They’re put in a vulnerable position and that’s exactly what’s going on here.”
After hearing a few hours of testimony, Toor said she’ll soon issue a written decision that could determine if Palmer can get back into the mask-selling business.
A spokesman for Central Vermont Medical Center said the hospital would have no comment while the court proceedings are ongoing.