Limo Firm’s Operator Is Charged in Fatal Upstate New York Crash

 nytimes.com  10/10/2018 8:48:07 PM  3  Jesse McKinley and William K. Rashbaum
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New York State Police officers at the site of the limousine crash in Schoharie, N.Y., on Monday.CreditCreditKyle Adams for The New York Times

ALBANY — Almost immediately after a limousine crashed in upstate New York and killed 20 people, investigators bore down on the limousine company, which had a record of repeated safety violations. On Wednesday, they made their first move against the company, arresting its operator outside Albany and charging him with criminally negligent homicide.

The operator, Nauman Hussain, had been issued written violations earlier this year after vehicle inspections by the State Police and the state Department of Transportation, said George P. Beach II, the superintendent of the State Police.

Mr. Hussain is the son of Shahed Hussain, the owner of Prestige Limousine.

The driver whom Nauman Hussain hired — Scott Lisinicchia, who died in the accident — “should not be operating the type of vehicle involved in Saturday’s crash,” the superintendent said.

Mr. Hussain had also ignored orders from the Transportation Department that the limousine should not be driven and “should not have been on the road,’’ Superintendent Beach said.

“The sole responsibility for that motor vehicle being on the road this Saturday rests with Nauman Hussain,” he added.

Mr. Hussain, 28, was taken into custody by the State Police during a traffic stop on a highway in Watervliet, N.Y. He was charged with one count of criminally negligent homicide involving all 20 crash victims, Superintendent Beach said.

He said it would be up to the Schoharie County district attorney, Susan J. Mallery, to decide whether to seek additional charges. Ms. Mallery is expected to present the case to a grand jury.

Superintendent Beach would not say whether Mr. Hussain’s father could face charges, but noted that the investigation was continuing.

The arrest came four days after a stretch limousine, rented out by Prestige, ran through a stop sign in Schoharie, N.Y., a town about 40 miles west of Albany, struck two pedestrians and a parked car, and landed in a shallow ravine. All 17 passengers and the limousine’s driver were killed, as were two pedestrians.

The arrest is the latest development in a fast-moving investigation focusing on the limousine — a 2001 Ford Excursion — that had repeatedly failed inspections, including one as recently as last month.

The company, which was doing business out of a low-budget hotel north of Albany, has been visited multiple times by State Police investigators, who are also seeking the elder Mr. Hussain, a former F.B.I. informant.

[The limo company owner in the crash was revealed as an F.B.I. informant, a recruiter of terrorists and a fraudster.]

The crash on Saturday was the worst transportation-related accident in the country in nine years, dating to a 2009 plane crash outside Buffalo that killed 50 people.

Among the victims in Saturday’s were 17 young friends — all between the ages of 24 and 34 — who had been traveling in the limousine for a birthday party trip at a local brewery.

In remarks to reporters outside a State Police barracks Wednesday afternoon, a lawyer for the limousine company, Lee Kindlon, said the State Police and other authorities were “jumping the gun” in arresting and charging Mr. Hussain.

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Nauman HussainCreditNew York State Police

“Even the most simple investigation, done well, takes months,” Mr. Kindlon said, adding that his client would plead not guilty to the charges. “And now because of the actions taken today, that time frame is compressed.”

Mr. Kindlon said Mr. Hussain had met on Monday with investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, the State Police and the state’s Transportation Department and was asked to turn over certain documents about the company and the vehicle.

The process of collecting those materials was underway, Mr. Kindlon said when he received a “panicked call” from his client’s family at about 11 a.m. on Wednesday, telling him that Mr. Hussain was being arrested. Mr. Kindlon said there had been no request by the authorities to speak with his client’s father.

The crash has also raised questions about the regulation and oversight of stretch limousines, specially made vehicles that are built from former cars or sport utility vehicles and often do not have to meet strict federal safety requirements. And while drivers of such elongated vehicles are required to wear seatbelts, passengers in the back are not.

The limousine that crashed had failed two inspections by state officials in the last seven months, inspection reports show. Both failures resulted in the limousine being ordered off the road until the defects inspectors found were fixed.

In the latest inspection, conducted in early September in Saratoga Springs and lasting 43 minutes, the limousine was found to have 18 seats but to be certified to carry no more than 10 passengers, including the driver.

It also was cited for a dangling brake line that could make contact with one of its tires. The limousine’s warning light for its hydraulic-braking system was staying on, the report showed. The owner was also faulted for not addressing problems noted in an earlier inspection.

An inspection report on the same limousine in March found that same brake warning light remaining lit and that its braking system was not working properly. The limousine was ordered out of service because its rear emergency exit window and a right-side emergency door were inoperable.

Normally, owners are given 15 days to correct the defects found in an inspection or risk fines. A federal database of motor vehicle inspections does not indicate that state officials inspected the limousine again in the four weeks before the disastrous crash last weekend.

Federal safety officials investigating the Schoharie crash have described the accident as a “high-energy impact,” which drove the limousine’s engine into the driver’s side. State officials have said the 2001 Ford Excursion was not supposed to be on the road, having failed inspections, including tests of its brakes.

The charges against Mr. Hussain were announced by State Police Major Robert E. Patnaude, the commander of Troop G, which is based in Latham, N.Y., and is investigating the crash.

The State Police have made clear that they would like to interview the older Mr. Hussain, 62.

He has a curious history, having worked as an informant, helping to convict two leaders of an Albany mosque in a 2004 plot to import a missile and assassinate a Pakistani diplomat, as well as a case in 2009 involving a conspiracy to bomb synagogues in the Bronx. In both cases, the attacks were thwarted.

But his record is also filled with criminal acts, including fraudulently obtaining driver’s licenses, and financial troubles — he filed for bankruptcy in 2003 after accumulating debts of $177,000. That bankruptcy case was settled in 2007.

A year later his family started Prestige Limousine.

On Wednesday, Mr. Kindlon said Shahed Hussain had been in Pakistan for some time to deal with health issues. He said the older Mr. Hussain had been much more involved in the day-to-day running of the company than his son, who he said mainly helped market the company and answer business calls.

He also suggested that state officials should have addressed the road where the crash happened, which residents had long said was dangerous.

“This road was a problem,” Mr. Kindlon said. “It was a known problem to the State of New York.”

He added that Mr. Hussain’s father was “worried sick about his own son” and may return to the United States to assist in the investigation.

“I know that should we need him,” Mr. Kindlon said, “he will come here.”

Patrick McGeehan and Benjamin Weiser contributed reporting.

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