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Fast, definitive work on US price gouging complaints amid coronavirus crisis

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When Justin Pritchard and Reese Dunklin were asked to look into price gouging and profiteering off the coronavirus crisis, they weren’t interested in doing an ordinary roundup.

Instead, the pair from the AP’s investigative team sought to go deeper by employing a key part of their investigative reporting toolkit: a systematic reporting strategy.

They quickly came up with and executed a plan to question attorneys general in all 50 states that resulted in the most comprehensive look yet at the problem across the nation. And it came at a key time when the topic was on the minds of millions of Americans as lockdown orders took hold and shoppers scrambled to stock up on coveted supplies.

In just two days of reporting,Pritchard and Dunklin uncovered more than 5,000 reports of everything from price gouging on toilet paper and masks,to scams offering tests and even cures for the illness. Those reports turned out to be a treasure trove of quotes from angry complainants,cellphone photos offered as evidence and plenty of jaw-dropping details – including one business selling bottles of hand sanitizer for $60 a bottle,another accused of offering it at $1 a squirt,and one convenience store touting toilet paper for $10 a roll,accompanied by a sign reading: “This is not a joke.”

Pritchard in Los Angeles and Dunklin in Dallas,who in the past have spent months investigating such topics as child abuse on military bases and vapes spiked with street drugs, knew they didn’t have the luxury of time on this story. Scattered reports of profiteering had already started to surface across the country and Attorney General William Barr had days earlier issued a news release promising stepped-up enforcement.

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Photos made by investigators with the Michigan attorney general’s office show a price of $4.47 on a shelf sticker, and $8.99 on a price scanner for a gallon of Clorox bleach at a Menards store in Jackson, Mich., March 11, 2020. A Menards spokesman told AP the price was different because Clorox recently began offering new, upgraded concentrations of bleach. The company said it was “disappointed” and taking the cease-and-desist letter from the state attorney general’s office “very seriously.” – Michigan attorney general’s Office via AP

Working with Washington Justice Department reporter Michael Balsamo,who had a sit-down interview with Barr,Pritchard and Dunklin began putting together their findings even before all of their queries to attorneys general had come back. And their finished story hit the wire hours before Barr announced new actions against such crimes, including a national hotline.

Their brightly written story with the headline “$10 toilet paper? Coronavirus gouging complaints surge in U.S.” was accompanied by some of the evidence photos and got strong play on a very busy coronavirus news day. It ranked in the Top 10 on the AP News app all day,had strong engagement numbers and was picked up by such websites as ABC and CBS.

For fast,aggressive work that tapped into a topic on the public’s mind, AP recognizes Pritchard and Dunklin with this week’s Best of the States award.

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