HOUSTON – Houston-area first responders and others could have access to “millions” of additional N-95 masks and “truckloads of hand sanitizer” if it wasn’t for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, the attorney for Auctions Unlimited told KPRC 2 Friday.
“[The owner of Auctions Unlimited] is trying to maintain his business while the government is trying to destroy it, all so that Ken Paxton can get a stupid headline,” attorney Charles Adams said. “It’s an embarrassment.”
Tim Worstell is a fourth-generation auctioneer. He is the middle man for companies and individuals trying to sell everything from autographed baseballs to N-95 masks.
Large companies have contracted with Worstell since 2018 to sell their surplus N-95 and other masks, which in normal times sell for about $10 a box.
Earlier this month, Worstell told his suppliers he would put up for auction every single N-95 mask, dust mask, hand sanitizer and other critical supplies “to get them to Houstonians as fast as possible.”
Paxton’s office accused Worstell of price gouging when bidders from the Houston area, including first responders, bid as much as $180 for a box of masks.
“All [the AG’s office] had to do was send me a simple letter,” Worstell said. “I could never get it.”
Worstell said he never received an official government letter telling him to stop the auction. Worstell said he needed the letter to protect him from losing his auction license and breaking his contracts to his suppliers.
“The portrait being painted by the [Texas] Attorney General’s office of my client as some evil human being who was gouging during this time of disaster is completely false,” Adams said.
The night before Paxton’s office filed a lawsuit against Worstell’s online auction house for alleged price gouging, Worstell said a Harris County official called him with an offer to buy the masks for “hammer price,” or the final bidding price.
The Harris County official called it a “fair price," Worstell said.
“The AG was on calls with the County this morning, and agreed to let us pay fair price,” the Harris County purchaser texted Worstell the next morning, before the Attorney General’s lawsuit was filed.
“Here is what the county would like to purchase,” the official said in an email to Worstell later that morning. Hours later, the Paxton’s office filed the price gouging lawsuit.
On Friday morning, FEMA officials emailed Worstell offering to buy the masks. Worstell agreed, and informed Harris County.
Within an hour, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo signed an order to commandeer the N-95 masks, 200,000 dust masks, hand sanitizer and other equipment.
Surveillance video from Auctions Unlimited showed Harris County and FEMA officials arriving at the auction house at the same time. FEMA officials in black SUVs and county officials in white trucks.
Harris County officials presented Hidalgo’s order and proceeded to load the commandeered equipment into a white Penske moving truck.
“That surprised me because I thought, aren’t we all on the same team?” Worstell said. “I’m just a small fish in a big pond. This has definitely been an education.”
Adams said companies that have worked with and trust Worstell have reached out, wanting him to help them sell “millions” of N-95 masks and “truckloads of hand sanitizer” at fair market prices.
“[Worstell] has the opportunity to secure millions more that he could sell to the government on any level, federal, state, county, at far less than they’re paying now, but he’s afraid to do it” Adams said. “He doesn’t want to get into more trouble for doing nothing wrong. It’s absolutely disgusting.”
A Harris County representative told KPRC 2 Friday that county officials wanted to get the masks to people who needed them as fast as possible.
He also said Harris County will pay “fair market” price for the dust masks, N-95 masks and other equipment the county ”commandeered.”
Harris County has not accused Auctions Unlimited of price gouging.
As long as the Paxton’s lawsuit is in place, Auctions Unlimited cannot make the additional N-95 masks and other equipment available to Houstonians, FEMA and others, Adams said.