A Paterson-based school bus company owner from Wayne and his manager hired criminals as drivers – including a registered sex offender – and covered it up, state authorities charged.
Shelim Khalique, the 51-year-old owner/operator of A-1 Elegant Tours on Paterson Street, and manager Henry Rhodes, 56, of Paterson, hired drivers without background checks or mandatory drug tests while operating unsafe buses, state Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal said.
Personnel files seized last year revealed that A-1 – which has serviced Essex, Hudson, Passaic and Union counties -- employed several drivers who Grewal said:
- didn’t have valid commercial driver’s licenses;
- didn’t have required endorsements;
- had criminal records.
A former driver is a registered sex offender, the attorney general added.
“A number of files were missing mandatory records of fingerprinting, background checks and drug testing,” Grewal said.
Two former A-1 bus drivers accused of being high on drugs while driving with children aboard are awaiting trials in Essex and Passaic counties.
One of them crashed a bus carrying children with special needs in Newark and had to be revived with Narcan.
The company hid what it was up to while securing work with school districts in “an unconscionable case of contract fraud,” Grewal said.
A-1, doing business as Eastern Star Transportation, “lied about its employees and equipment to secure contracts, and then had unqualified drivers, convicted felons, and those under the influence drive and supervise young children each day in what were frequently unsafe vehicles,” the attorney general said.
In some cases, he said, A-1 “submitted documents to the state “listing the names of certain drivers and aides to be employed on bus routes transporting public school students – when, in reality, other employees who were not properly licensed were transporting students on those routes.”
Then there are the safety issues.
Surprise inspections of A-1 Elegant Tours school buses after students were dropped off one morning found nearly every bus with such severe violations that investigators impounded the vehicles, Grewal said.
The state Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC) cited A-1 and its drivers a number of times in 2018, he said.
These included 22 citations in Paterson alone for allowing a disqualified driver to operate a commercial motor vehicle, nine citations for failing to have a valid commercial driver’s license, five citations for not having valid endorsements and one for driving with a suspended license, the attorney general said.
A-1 “used various methods in an effort to evade MVC inspections and citations, including diverting unlicensed drivers away from inspection sites and having drivers keep buses at their homes overnight,” he said.
“It is painfully apparent that the operators of this company lost their moral compass, putting profit above safety,” NJ State Police Supt. Col. Patrick J. Callahan added.
State authorities charged Khalique, Rhodes and the company with conspiracy, theft, lying to obtain government contracts and tampering with public records.
Khalique and Rhodes are each also charged with misconduct by a corporate official.
State authorities also charged Khalique in connection with a separate election fraud case out of Paterson.
Handling the investigation were Grewal’s Office of Public Integrity and Accountability, New Jersey State Police and the Essex and Passaic county prosecutor’s offices.
Deputy Attorney General Samantha McCluskey is prosecuting the case.
Although the current allegations center on $1 million worth of contracts with public school districts in Essex County, Grewal said the investigation was continuing.
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