By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
The owner and manager of a Paterson-based bus company that has previously served Montclair public schools were indicted last week — accused of hiring unqualified drivers and providing school districts with false information to cover it up.
A-1 Elegant Tours, doing business under the name Eastern Star Transportation, failed to conduct mandatory drug tests and criminal background tests for its drivers and aides, the state Office of the Attorney General said when announcing the indictment on March 25. The owner, Shelim Khalique, 52, of Wayne, and the manager, Henry Rhodes, 57, of Paterson, were both initially charged in June of last year.
Montclair district officials said in 2019 the company was one of 25 serving the district through the Essex Regional Educational Services Commission. In the fall of that year, parents complained to the district that the company’s buses were not arriving or departing on schedule, and were not following assigned routes. The district told parents the company was new to Montclair at the time, and the drivers were still learning Montclair’s routes.
By that point, the company was already facing a slew of 2018 citations from the Motor Vehicle Commision, according to information released by the Attorney General’s office in 2020, when it first announced the charges that later led to the incitement. The company had failed surprise inspections from the Attorney General’s Office in spring of 2019, it said.
“Almost all of the buses failed inspection so badly that they were impounded and were not allowed to be driven off the school properties,” the Attorney General’s office said in a 2020 press release.
Throughout 2018, the Motor Vehicle Commission cited A-1 and its drivers several times, including 22 citations for allowing a disqualified driver to operate a commercial vehicle, nine citations for failure to possess a valid CDL while operating a commercial motor vehicle, five citations for failure to possess valid endorsements and one citation for failing to present appropriate documentation, the 2020 release said. Those citations all stemmed from inspections at A-1’s Paterson yard, the 2020 release said.
“A-1 allegedly 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,” the 2020 release said.
Montclair Superintendent Jonathan Ponds did not return a message seeking information on how recently the company was transporting Montclair students, or whether any of certain specific incidents described by the Attorney General’s Office involved service to the district.
Personnel files seized in 2019 showed many of the company’s drivers didn’t have commercial driver’s licenses or required endorsements, had suspended licenses, and/or had criminal records, the Attorney General’s Office said. A-1 also employed bus aides with criminal records, it said.
It said many files were missing records of fingerprinting, background checks and drug testing. Two bus drivers were charged with driving buses for A-1 with one or more children onboard while under the influence of narcotics, according to the Attorney General’s Office. In one incident, a driver crashed the bus multiple times in Orange and East Orange, Peter Aseltine, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, said. Another former driver is a registered sex offender, the office said.
Aseltine said he couldn’t provide more information about specific incidents than in the charging documents, which didn’t cite individual school districts.
The bus company had contracts with public schools in Essex, Hudson, Passaic and Union counties from 2016 through 2020, but the indictment only involves the contracts in Essex County, the Attorney General’s Office said. In all, the company had contracts with a total value in excess of $1 million with various public school districts in Essex during that time period, the office said.
Khalique and Rhodes face charges of conspiracy in the second degree, false representation for a government contract in the second degree, theft by deception in the second degree, tampering with public records of information in the third degree, falsifying or tampering with records in the fourth degree and misconduct by a corporate official in the second degree.
They were charged in an investigation by the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability, New Jersey State Police, Essex County Prosecutor’s Office and Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office.
“This indictment is an important step in our prosecution of these defendants, who we charge jeopardized the safety of children and lied to conceal their egregious conduct,” Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said in the statement from his office. “The defendants allegedly had unqualified drivers, convicted felons and narcotics users drive and supervise children — frequently in unsafe buses. We’ll continue to investigate and aggressively prosecute this type of criminal conduct, because we have no higher priority than protecting children.”
Patrick J. Callahan, superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, said it was “painfully apparent that the operators of this company lost their moral compass, putting profit above safety by placing innocent children on buses unfit for the road, which were operated by unqualified drivers, who in many instances had criminal records.”
“The idea that anyone would allow young school children to be transported by drivers who not only lacked the proper credentials but, in some cases, were high on narcotics or had serious criminal records is extraordinarily troubling,” acting Essex County Prosecutor Theodore N. Stephens II said.