Shelim Khalique, the 52-year-old owner/operator of A-1 Elegant Tours on Paterson Street, and manager Henry Rhodes, 57, 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 in 2019 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 were accused of being high on drugs while driving with children.
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.”
“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 said.
From 2016 to 2020, A-1 had contracts with public school districts in Essex, Hudson, Passaic and Union counties, Grewal noted.
An indictment returned Tuesday by a grand jury in Trenton charges Khalique, Rhodes and the company with conspiracy, theft, lying to obtain government contracts and tampering with public records in connection with more than $1 million worth of contracts that the company had with public school districts in Essex, he said.
Khalique and Rhodes are each also charged with misconduct by a corporate official.
Both were charged in separate complaints with other offenses.
For instance, Grewal said, 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.
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.
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.
Handling the case for the state are Deputy Attorney General Samantha Keleher, Deputy Attorney General Adam Gerken, and Special Deputy Attorney General Michael McDonald.
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