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STATE EXPANDS PROBE OF GAS PRICES

Attorney General Paul Van Dam is expanding an investigation into higher gasoline prices in southern Utah to find out why Wasatch Front motorists are paying up to 13 cents more a gallon since the Memorial Day weekend.

Earlier this year, the attorney general promised residents of St. George and other Washington County communities that he would find out why gas costs more there than it does in the rest of the state.Now Van Dam also wants to know why gas prices along the Wasatch Front jumped after the Memorial Day weekend, traditionally the start of the summer travel season.

Civil investigative demands, which are similar to subpoenas, were expected to be issued Friday to force the retail gas industry to cooperate with the attorney general's investigation.

"We've been very active for the past year," said Art Strong, the chief of the office's Fair Business Enforcement Unit. "Now this is a more formal investigation."

Strong declined to specify which companies would be getting the civil investigative demands, but he said that they were not being handed out to individual gas stations.

He said civil investigative demands may be issued to sources that have ALREADY provided information in the investigation, so that their statements can be taken under oath.

Those receiving the civil investigative demands will have about a month to comply, and their answers may well determine whether charges are filed, Strong said.

Even though the attorney general's office has been accumulating information on gas pricing since May 1989, Strong is reluctant to say a case is being put together.

However, Strong said he could not imagine the investigation being dropped because of information received by the office that he also declined to disclose.

In mid-February, petitions protesting high gas prices in southern Utah containing the signatures of more than 6,000 Washington County residents were presented to Van Dam.

Residents complained of price-fixing, noting that gasoline tends to cost as much as 25 percent more in St. George and surrounding communities than it does along the Wasatch Front.

Last weekend, Wasatch Front consumers discovered gas prices were up as much as 13 cents a gallon over the Memorial Day weekend, from a low of 92 cents to a high of $1.05.

Industry officials blamed the jump on gradually increasing wholesale prices and competition among service stations. They predicted prices would be below a dollar by this weekend.