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Hank Gilbert, Democrat for state agriculture commissioner, stood outside a Tyler gas station in September, saying the station's pumps hadn't been inspected by the state to make sure they're working properly since July 1997.
"All over the state, we found stations in every (Texas Department of Agriculture) region that either haven't been inspected in years or they have no inspection stickers on them," Gilbert said, according to the Sept. 16 video his campaign posted online. "If this was inspection stickers for vehicles and you had 20 percent of all the vehicles on the road without inspection stickers, it would be in the news media every day and the state would raising all kinds of Cain because of the revenue being lost to the state. But the revenue is not being lost to the state here, the only people here that are getting cheated are the consumers."
Sticker-gate? Roll in the Truth-O-Meter.
Background: State law requires each gas pump to be inspected at least every four years by a Texas Department of Agriculture inspector, or more often if a consumer makes an inquiry. The department says an inspector "will place an 'out of order' tag on any pump not dispensing the correct amount of fuel within the allowable tolerance." The pump must be repaired, then re-tested by a TDA inspector who will place a new seal on the pump before it can be used again.
Agency spokesman Bryan Black told us in an e-mail that from 2007 to Oct. 4, 2010, the agency inspected 390,837 fuel pumps, with the time between inspections averaging 2.6 years, meaning some pumps have been inspected more than once.
So, how often are inspection stickers missing from pumps? Also, how often does the state fail to inspect them in the required time?
We came up empty on those questions, though a list of inspected stations posted online by the agriculture department shows that in each of the department's five regions, some pumps flunked inspections in the latest review period. From Aug. 5 to Oct. 4, 2010, the agency found 190 stations (including four in Austin) with pumps out of compliance.
When we inquired about the number of stations around the state with pumps that have not been inspected, Black replied that the burden to seek inspections is on retailers that sell gas. He said in an e-mail that fuel retailers are required by law to register annually with the department and that violators are investigated and held accountable.
Black said in an e-mail: "Since 2007, TDA has quadrupled the penalty for noncompliance with our state's weights and measures laws, created new consumer protections for fuel quality, begun posting violators on the agency website, implemented unprecedented market blitz inspections for those not complying with our laws, and heavily published a toll free hotline for all Texas drivers to use to report noncompliance to TDA."
Next, we sought to interview Gilbert about the pumps he says lack inspections or have out-of-date inspection stickers. Gilbert's campaign manager, Vince Leibowitz, said in an e-mail that Gilbert wouldn't talk to PolitiFact Texas, which he said Gilbert considers slanted toward Republicans. Later, Leibowitz sent us e-mails listing 15 stores where he said Gilbert identified pumps out of compliance with the inspection law.
In Amarillo, according to Gilbert, seven stores had pumps with no inspection stickers. In the Tyler area, the list shows two stores with pumps having expired stickers and two with pumps lacking inspection stickers. Gilbert's campaign says a store in Trinity has a sticker indicating it was last inspected in the second quarter of 2004 and most pumps at two stores in Round Rock, north of Austin, lacked stickers, meaning they had no proof they'd been inspected. Leibowitz said Gilbert also spotted a store in Weslaco with out-of-date pump stickers.
Using a map of agriculture department districts, we confirmed that the identified stations are spread among all the agency's regions, as Gilbert said in Tyler.
We lacked travel resources to eye most of Gilbert's proclaimed sightings, but Austin American-Statesman colleagues stopped by the two Round Rock stores. On an Oct. 9 visit by Jay Godwin, a Quix convenience store at Highway 79 and Interstate 35 in Round Rock had 2007 inspection stickers posted on three pumps, with seven pumps lacking stickers. Roger Ingram, general counsel for Strasburger Enterprises, Inc., which owns the store, later told us he didn't know why the pumps lack stickers. "They can be peeled off by just about anybody," Ingram said.
On Oct. 11, the newspaper's Miguel Liscano checked a Wag a Bag store noted by Gilbert, on Interstate Highway 35 South; none of its six pumps had an inspection sticker. Cary Rabb, president of Wag a Bag, later told us the pumps were changed out about three months ago, and the company expects the state to inspect the replacement pumps.
Separately, Black guided us to an agency website that displays the inspection status of stations county by county. On the site, we tried to check the inspection status of the stations identified by Gilbert, finding several--including the Round Rock stores--with inspections within the past four years, as the law requires.
In other parts of Texas, five stores named by Gilbert had their pumps inspected within four years, according to the site, and two Tyler stores had pumps inspected after Gilbert aired concerns there, with some pumps not passing. We found no record on the state site of six Gilbert-identified stores.
Gilbert's camp responded to our findings with a statement from Gilbert: "A pump that does not bear a current inspection sticker is, as far as the consumer knows when he or she fills up with gas, uninspected. If it was inspected at some point in the last four years and doesn't bear seals, it is still non-compliant."
In an e-mail, Black confirmed that every gas dispenser should have a state inspection seal on it. Possible reasons a pump lacks a sticker, he said, include a flunked inspection, a replaced or refurbished "pump cabinet," someone peeling off the state sticker, a station shifting its pumps without notifying the state and a station opening pumps without registering them with the state.
In a later e-mail, Black cautioned against concluding a pump without a sticker has not been inspected, saying any such claims would need to be verified in the agency's database.
Scott Fisher, vice president for policy for the Texas Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, told us that it's "unrealistic" to think all of the hundreds of thousands of pumps across the state would always show inspection stickers. And Chris Newton, the association's president, pointed out in a subsequent e-mail that big ol' Texas leads the nation in pumps subject to regulation. Another factor in pumps lacking stickers, he wrote, is that "many pumps are re-manufactured devices that feature an older façade with an older (state) sticker. The device may in fact be properly registered, but may not have a new sticker."
Our call? We're persuaded there are pumps in every TDA region missing inspection stickers, as Gilbert says. However, the absence of stickers doesn't always means pumps haven't been duly inspected, our peek into the state database suggests. Gilbert's grab-your-pocketbook punch line--that consumers are being cheated--isn't proved out.
We rate Gilbert's statement Half True.
E-mails (excerpted), responses to PolitiFact Texas, Bryan Black, Texas Department of Agriculture, Sept. 24 through Oct. 14, 2010
E-mail, Vince Gilbert, campaign manager, Hank Gilbert campaign, response to PolitiFact Texas on state database query, Oct. 12, 2010
E-mail, Vince Gilbert, campaign manager, Hank Gilbert campaign, response to PolitiFact Texas on gas stations in Texas Department of Agriculture regions, and follow-up e-mail, on gas station in TDA Region 5, Oct. 8, 2010
E-mail and interview, Chris Newton, president,Texas Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, Austin, Oct. 14, 2010
Interview, Roger Ingram, general counsel, Strasburger Enterprises, Inc., Round Rock, Oct. 14, 2010
Interview, Cary Rabb, president, Wag a Bag, Round Rock, Texas, Oct. 15, 2010
Texas Department of Agriculture, map of five regions of Texas, received Oct. 11, 2010
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