A New Jersey school bus company operated unsafe buses, failed to conduct required background checks and hired drivers with criminal records, including one who was a registered sex offender, according to an indictment released Tuesday.
The indictment also charged Paterson-based A-1 Elegant Tours with falsifying documents it provided to school districts to cover its tracks. Owner Shelim Khalique, of Wayne, and manager Henry Rhodes, of Paterson, face charges including conspiracy, misconduct by a corporate official, false representations for a government contract and theft by deception. Those crimes each carry a potential prison sentence of five to 10 years.
According to Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, personnel files seized in 2019 showed some of the drivers the company hired had suspended licenses or didn't have the proper commercial licenses.
The indictment also alleged the company hired drivers with criminal records and lacked information on fingerprinting, background checks and drug testing. Two drivers were charged with driving buses with children aboard while under the influence of narcotics, according to the attorney general's office.
A surprise inspection by state investigators in 2019 after buses dropped children off at schools found so many inspection violations that many of the buses were impounded and not allowed to be driven off the school properties, according to the attorney general's office.
Joseph Rotella, an attorney for Khalique, said Tuesday he was reviewing the indictment and didn't immediately comment. Rhodes' lawyer, Howard Lesnik, said in an email his client “denies all allegations in the indictment and looks forward to clearing his name in court as soon as possible.”
A-1 Elegant Tours, which operates under the name Eastern Star Transportation, had contracts with school districts in Essex, Hudson, Passaic and Union counties in northern New Jersey. The indictment covered its contracts with school districts in Essex County between 2016 and 2020, which totaled more than $1 million.
“The defendants allegedly had unqualified drivers, convicted felons, and narcotics users drive and supervise children — frequently in unsafe buses," Grewal said in a statement. "We’ll continue to investigate and aggressively prosecute this type of criminal conduct, because we have no higher priority than protecting children.”