ALBANY — While a report released by the New York state Inspector General Friday concluded state officials could have and should have used existing state laws and regulations to help prevent the Schoharie limousine crash that killed 20 people in 2018, it “found no evidence of misconduct or malfeasance on the part of any DOT or DMV employee.”
The 29-page report from state Inspector General Lucy Lang, which does not mention any state official by name, showed that although Saratoga County based Prestige Limousine and Chauffeur Service made multiple false representations in its applications for a Department of Motor Vehicles limousine registration during the two years leading up to the Oct. 6, 2018 crash, DMV officials using better procedures could have caught the company’s lies.
“Contributing to the ability of Prestige to successfully misrepresent the limousine in such a fashion was the fact that, as per its regular practice, DMV did not review the complete registration history or title record for the limousine at the time of its registration and re-registrations,” reads the IG’s report. “Such a review would have revealed that under its previous ownership between 2001 and 2015, the limousine had been registered and re-registered multiple times with DMV as an 18-passenger limousine and been subjected to semi-annual DOT inspections as part of the bus inspection program.”
According to the IG’s report, Prestige Limousine, owned by former FBI informant Shahed Hussain and managed by his son Nauman Hussain, had misrepresented the seating capacity of the 2001 Ford Excursion limousine, which had previously been “stretched” into an 18-passenger capacity vehicle, claiming, falsely, that its seating capacity was less than the 15-passenger “bus” threshold that would have triggered an additional semi-annual DOT inspection that could have caught the mechanical defects in the vehicle.
The IG report focused mainly on that agency’s task of investigating allegations of corruption, fraud, criminal activity, conflicts of interest, or abuse in state agencies, stating that it largely agreed with the findings of the National Transportation Safety Board’s 2020 investigation of the crash, which showed Prestige’s “egregious disregard for safety” and mechanical defects in the vehicle were not only largely responsible for the tragedy, but also that “shortfalls on the part of the state DMV and state Dept. of Transportation (DOT) were contributing factors to the crash.”
While NTSB’s investigation showed that the limousine was not safe for road operation at the time of the crash, had its brakes had been properly maintained by Prestige and its owners the Hussain family, it could have stopped safely, rather than accelerating over 100 mph downhill on Route 30 in the town of Schoharie, crashing through a T-intersection and into the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store, where it killed two pedestrians before hitting a car and barreling into a ravine, resulting in the death of all 17 passengers and the limo driver.
The IG’s report Friday provided further details from its own investigation that confirmed the NTSB’s criticisms of New York state’s DMV and DOT, stating “significant gaps in policies, procedures and interagency communications” led to the failure of state regulators to prevent the tragedy.
“When Prestige attempted to re-register the limousine in 2018, DMV failed to note the discrepancy between the ten-passenger capacity indicated on the registration form and the insurance certificate submitted in connection with the registration that indicated a capacity of 16 passengers,” reads the IG report. “As such, there were multiple opportunities for DMV to recognize the existence of significant inconsistencies, if not intentional misrepresentations, on the registration applications and the need for additional scrutiny as to whether the limousine required DOT operating authority. Notably, as of 2019, DMV has updated its registration application form to allow for better detection of misclassified vehicles.”
While Lang released the IG report at 8 p.m. Friday night, it had been long called for by both the families of the 20 crash victims, as well as Republican and Democratic elected officials.
Lang’s report detailed numerous examples of how state officials could have helped to prevent the tragic crash either through better procedures or better communication between different state agencies, including when DOT officials became aware in 2017 that Prestige had misclassified the stretch limousine’s seating capacity when a DOT field inspector observed it parked at a commercial vehicle repair shop.
“While DOT did then immediately initiate a process to require Prestige to have the vehicle properly subjected to the bus inspection program, it did not inform DMV of the improper registration,” reads the report. “Such notification could have led to a concurrent DMV administrative hearing and/or criminal investigation related to the falsified documentation, the suspension of registrations for Prestige’s other limousines and ultimately, the seizure of their license plate.”
Nauman Hussain is currently being prosecuted on charges of second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide for the fatal crash in Schoharie County.
Shahed Hussain was in Pakistan at the time of the crash, and has not returned since. In April, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Assistant Director Jill Tyson issued a statement indicating the FBI was undergoing a review of Shahed Hussain’s time as an FBI criminal informant, following several months of bi-partisan pressure from both U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, and U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Saratoga.
The public pressure from Tonko and Stefanik, among other elected officials, followed an investigative story by Ben Ryder Howe published in New York Magazine on Jan. 19, which detailed allegations that the FBI may have helped shield Shahed Hussain and his family from state and local enforcement actions and legal consequences ever since his time as a paid undercover informant, which helped lead to the controversial prosecution and convictions of Kurdish refugee Yassin Aref and an Albany pizza shop owner named Mohammad Hossain on terrorism-related charges during President George W. Bush’s war on terrorism in the years following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
The FBI has not yet publicly released any report of its findings.
The IG’s report Friday did include mention of one of the allegations detailed in Howe’s story in the report’s footnotes for page 7.
“The (IG’s) review did not address the allegation that the NYSP interfered with NTSB’s access to the limousine,” reads the footnote. “This matter was litigated by the Schoharie County District Attorney and NTSB’s legal counsel. The (IG) does not have jurisdiction to review actions of a district attorney’s office. The (IG’s) review did not address this allegation, which was litigated in State Supreme Court. DOT and DMV ultimately complied with the court’s ruling requiring the release of records.”
The IG’s report did describe some of the interactions between state officials and Prestige.
“After coming onto its radar in June 2017, DOT had extensive interaction with the limousine and its owner, including repeatedly providing instructions on obtaining DOT operating authority, sending emails regarding non-compliance, and, in August 2017, issuing a Notice of Violation for advertising the vehicle’s availability as a for-hire limousine despite not having operating authority,” reads the report. “A hearing date was set for this Notice of Violation in October 2017, but Prestige did not appear, which resulted in a default finding against them and a basis for DOT to subsequently direct that DMV issue an Order of Suspension or Revocation. Notably, any registration suspension requires due process, including notice to the registrant and an opportunity to be heard, as occurred here, but once a registration is suspended, the covered license plates and registration must be surrendered to DMV or they may be seized by law enforcement.”
The IG report was critical of DOT officials’ choice to seek a settlement with Prestige following its order to DMV to suspend the limousine license for the vehicle on Feb. 20, 2018.
“The next day, on February 21, 2018, rather than communicate to DMV the urgency of getting this limousine off the road, waiting for Prestige to surrender the limousine’s license plates and registration, or law enforcement to seize them ... DOT sent an offer of settlement to Prestige, proposing to reduce the civil fine to $500 from $5,000, in exchange for a plea of guilty,” reads the IG report. “On March 6, 2018, Prestige accepted this offer and paid the $500 fine, which then required DOT to notify DMV to lift the suspension, despite the vehicle still not being in compliance with DOT regulations. Notably, there existed other mechanisms by which DOT could have pursued a suspension on the basis that the vehicle was operating without DOT authority that need not have been lifted with the payment of a civil fine, but DOT did not pursue these options.”