HOUSTON – The office of the Texas Attorney General filed a lawsuit against Houston-based Auctions Unlimited for price gouging, but the owner said it is all a big misunderstanding.
"Everybody's under a lot of pressure," owner Tim Worstell said. "I'm not mad at the Attorney General's office. I don't think they're evil or bad. I just think they got bad information."
Auctions Unlimited has been under contract with large companies for nearly two years to sell their surplus N-95 and other masks, Worstell said.
Worstell decided a couple of weeks ago to place all masks and other items that could be useful in the fight against COVID-19 up for auction at once, in hundreds of separate bundles.
"I thought we were doing the right thing by immediately getting out all the masks that we could possibly get," he said.
The 750,000 or so dust masks and several hundred N-95 masks eventually “sold” to 204 bidders for a total of about $154,000, he said.
No money has been collected, and the masks and other supplies are sitting in his warehouse. The dust masks usually sell for $10 or so a box, and the bidding started at $1, Worstell said.
Many Houstonians and others have called and emailed his business with death threats, and he doesn’t blame them.
"These folks are just responding naturally," he said. "Based on the information they got. You can't be mad at them."
The Texas Attorney General accused Auctions Unlimited in its lawsuit of intentional price gouging, ignoring warnings, and profiting off the sale of the equipment.
But Worstell said he not only did not ignore warnings, he begged the AG’s office to send a cease and desist order, so that he could cancel the auction without breaking his contract with the suppliers.
He said that letter never came.
Worstell also said the 200 or so buyers were all from Houston and included first responders and others who desperately needed the masks, and who are upset they won’t get them.
“The idea that I’m tarnishing my family’s name that my family worked hard to build is the hardest part,” said Worstell, whose great-grandfather started the business. “It’s just not who we are.”
Worstell said he is, and has always been willing to do the right thing.
“Whatever they tell me to do, I just don’t want to be sued by my consignors,” he said. “I don’t want to be sued by the buyers. I just want to be told what to do, and I’ll be glad to do it.”