Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal announced in a statement that the owner of a Paterson-based school bus company, its manager, and the company were indicted today for allegedly providing false information to school districts in connection with contracts to cover up the fact that the company hired unqualified drivers, failed to conduct mandatory drug testing and criminal background checks for drivers and aides, and operated unsafe buses, all in violation of contract terms and state requirements.
Officials said the defendants were initially charged by complaint-summons on June 25, 2020.
Today a state grand jury indicted the owner, Shelim Khalique, 52, of Wayne, the manager, Henry Rhodes, 57, of Paterson, and the company, A-1 Elegant Tours, Inc., d/b/a Eastern Star Transportation, LLC, (“A-1”), on following criminal charges:
- Conspiracy (2nd Degree),
- False Representations for a Government Contract (2ndDegree),
- Theft by Deception (2nd Degree),
- Tampering with Public Records or Information (3rdDegree), and
- Falsifying or Tampering with Records (4th Degree).
Khalique and Rhodes are also charged with Misconduct by a Corporate Official (2nd Degree).
They were charged in an investigation by the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability (OPIA), New Jersey State Police, Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, and Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office.
Personnel files seized in 2019 during execution of a search warrant revealed that A-1 employed many drivers who did not have valid commercial driver’s licenses or required endorsements, had suspended licenses, and/or had criminal records. A-1 also employed bus aides with criminal records.
A number of files were missing mandatory records of fingerprinting, background checks, and drug testing. Two bus drivers were charged with driving buses for A-1 with one or more children on board while under the influence of narcotics.
One of them crashed the bus. Another former driver is a registered sex offender.
“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,” said Attorney General Grewal.
“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.”
“We’re always vigilant to uncover crooked contractors who defraud the government of taxpayer dollars or fail to provide adequate products or services, but the stakes were much higher in this case, because young students were allegedly being endangered,” said Director Thomas Eicher of the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability.
“The owner and manager of this bus company have now been indicted on charges that carry significant prison sentences.”
“It is 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,” said Colonel Patrick J. Callahan, Superintendent of the New Jersey State Police. “We will continue to work with our partners to ensure that those responsible face justice.”
Acting Essex County Prosecutor Theodore N. Stephens, II, said, “The criminal conduct alleged in this case came to our attention when there were incidents in Essex County of school bus drivers operating under the influence or without the proper credentials.
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.
Working with our partners in the Attorney General’s Office and the Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office, we are on a path to hold individuals and corporate entities accountable.”
“A-1 put the lives of many children at risk with its illegal activities,” said Passaic County Prosecutor Camelia M. Valdes. “I am grateful to have worked with Prosecutor Ted Stephens and the Attorney General’s Office to help put an end to this unsafe operation.”
From 2016 to 2020, A-1 had contracts with public school districts in Essex, Hudson, Passaic and Union counties. The indictment relates exclusively to contracts in Essex County. In the aggregate, A-1 had contracts with a total value in excess of $1 million with various public school districts in Essex County during the time period in question.
Additional details regarding the alleged conduct of the defendants, as set forth in the criminal complaints initially filed against them, are contained in the press release posted at this link:
The investigation was conducted by the OPIA Corruption Bureau, under the leadership of OPIA Director Thomas Eicher, and members of the New Jersey State Police Official Corruption Bureau, in collaboration with the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office and the Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office.
Deputy Attorney General Samantha Keleher, Deputy Attorney General Adam Gerken, and Special Deputy Attorney General Michael McDonald are prosecuting the case, under the supervision of Corruption Bureau Chief Peter Lee and OPIA Deputy Director Anthony Picione.
Second-degree crimes carry a sentence of five to 10 years in state prison and a fine of up to $150,000, while third-degree crimes carry a sentence of three to five years in prison and fine of up to $15,000.