A New York man has become the first person to face federal charges over hoarding and price-gouging scarce medical supplies since President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act last month in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
According to a complaint filed by prosecutors in federal court on Friday, Amardeep Singh, 45, had been hoarding face masks, face shields, surgical gowns, and disinfecting products at a Long Island warehouse and selling them at inflated prices.
Among the people Singh allegedly price-gouged were particularly vulnerable organizations, including the Association to Benefit Children, the New York Foundation for Senior Citizens, and Rewarding Environments for Adult Living.
On March 18, Trump signed an executive order invoking the Defense Production Act to make it illegal to acquire scarce medical supplies in order to hoard them or sell them at excessive prices.
The Defense Production Act allows the government to control the distribution of items deemed essential to the national defense and creates criminal penalties for those found to be hoarding or price-gouging those items.
If convicted, Singh faces up to a year in prison.
Bradley Gerstman, Singh's attorney, denies that his client price-gouged anyone.
"This is a man trying to make a living," Gerstman told BuzzFeed News. "He'd never gouge. He's a family man who has run a store for people in the community for 25 years. He's got three young daughters, and we're going to plead not guilty and then we will show by way of evidence that our client has done nothing wrong."
Federal officials accused Singh of un-American behavior during "challenging times."
“During a crisis of this magnitude, we must come together as a country to fight this common enemy," said Philip R. Bartlett with the US Postal Inspection Service. "Unfortunately, Mr. Singh allegedly chose to use this opportunity to make money by hoarding and price-gouging [personal protective equipment]. The conduct charged in the complaint is reprehensible and against our most fundamental American values.”
According to the criminal complaint, Singh, who operates a store in Plainview, New York, that mostly sold clothing and shoes before the pandemic, began accumulating the medical supplies in mid-March.
Between March 25 and April 8, Singh allegedly received 40 shipments of face masks, 14 shipments of surgical gowns, 6 shipments of hand sanitizer weighing more than 1.8 tons, and 7 shipments of digital thermometers.
On April 14, postal inspectors searched Singh’s store and warehouse and seized more than 100,000 face masks, 5,000 face shields, 10,000 surgical gowns, 2,500 full-body isolation suits, and more than 500,000 pairs of disposable gloves.
The complaint includes screenshots from Instagram of Singh advertising these products for sale.
While those posts appear to have been deleted, what remains on Singh's Instagram feeds are photos with frontline workers picking up supplies he says he has donated.
According to the complaint, the federal government intervened after Singh continued to accumulate and sell these items after being cited by both Nassau County and the state of New York, including after an April 1 cease-and-desist letter from the state's attorney general's office.
The government alleges Singh's excessive markups ranged from as much as 99% on N95 masks to 1,328% for three-ply disposable face masks that he purchased for seven cents apiece and then resold at $1 each.
Gerstman, Singh's attorney, disputed the government's analysis of his client's costs and said he was confident he would be cleared of the charges.
"This is news to everybody in the country that selling [personal protective equipment] is illegal under the Defense Production Act," said Gerstman. "I can understand civil fines and penalties, but here we have a matter where my client is now subjected to criminal charges for something that he had no idea he was doing was wrong."
Federal officials, however, seemed determined to prosecute Singh as an example for others.
“This Office is working tirelessly in coordination with the COVID-19 Hoarding and Price Gouging Task Force to prevent a pandemic of greed by profiteers," said Craig Carpenito, head of the Department of Justice’s nationwide COVID-19 hoarding and price gouging task force.