Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison came out forcefully against scams and price gouging — or “pandemic profiteering” as he calls it — at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Add to that keeping a close eye on evictions and enforcing other executive orders from the governor’s office, the coronavirus has become an all-consuming priority for the state’s chief legal officer.
But the virus hit home for the Ellison family in the deepest way last month when his mother, Clida, died at 82 in Detroit from what were later determined to be complications of the virus.
“I guess I have a little more of an empathetic perspective on how devastating this disease really is,” Ellison said in a recent interview. “And I guess it makes me a little less patient with people who might want to openly flout the governor’s executive order.”
Ellison was speaking days after roughly 800 people protested in close quarters outside Gov. Tim Walz’s residence.
“I know that they may think that it’s cool now to do that, but I’m very afraid that in a few weeks they are going to know the extreme folly of what they just did,” Ellison said.
As of early last week, Ellison’s office had received more than 1,500 price gouging complaints and 255 eviction-related complaints. He also has testified in support of a $100 million housing aid bill in the Minnesota House.
While the pandemic has become a central focus of Ellison’s office, he maintains that it has only magnified the importance of some of his priorities for his second year in office.
“In many ways, our priorities haven’t been derailed,” Ellison said. “They’ve been intensified at this moment in time.”
The attorney general’s office has completed more than 100 secret-shopper visits to try to spot price gouging. Minnesota does not have a law banning price gouging, but the governor issued an executive order prohibiting the practice during the emergency last month.
Since then, Ellison’s office has sent out 35 letters to businesses enforcing the order. It has reached 18 resolutions. His office has also sent out six wage theft enforcement letters and filed three eviction-related lawsuits.
On Thursday, Ellison’s office reached a court agreement with St. Paul-based online retailer Red Star Trader after officials alleged that the company bought essential goods in bulk and resold them at “unconscionably excessive prices” — such as tripling the price it normally charged for rice.
As a member of the state’s executive council, which must ratify each of the governor’s executive orders, Ellison continues to defend the statewide stay-at-home order while also acknowledging that it should continue to be refined to prioritize health and safely to reopen businesses.
“The odd thing about it is these folks act like we’re just doing this just to be doing it,” Ellison said of those protesting the shutdown. “This is a very serious health pandemic, and the Ellison family can tell you that it is very serious based on firsthand experience.”