AG indicts owners of school bus company in Essex Co. for unsafe practices

ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — Acting Attorney Andrew J. Bruck announced Aug. 31 that the owners of an Essex County–based school bus company have been indicted for allegedly providing false information to school districts 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. The alleged false representations helped the defendants to obtain government contracts worth millions. 

The defendants were initially charged by complaint-summons on Oct. 8, 2020. On Aug. 31, a state grand jury indicted Ahmed Mahgoub, 63, and his wife, Faiza Ibrahim, 48, both of East Hanover, and their company F&A Transportation Inc., also doing business as Smart Union Inc. and Unity Transportation Inc., on the following criminal charges: conspiracy in the second degree; false representations for a government contract in the second degree; theft by deception in the second degree; tampering with public records or information in the third degree; and falsifying or tampering with records in the fourth degree. Mahgoub and Ibrahim are also charged with misconduct by a corporate official in the second degree. F&A is based primarily in East Orange.

The defendants were charged in an investigation by the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability and the New Jersey State Police Official Corruption Bureau. The alleged criminal conduct relates to contracts that F&A secured from 2016 through 2020 with public school districts in Essex, Passaic, Morris and Union counties. The contracts had an aggregate total value of approximately $3.5 million.

The defendants allegedly knowingly hired drivers who did not hold valid commercial driver’s licenses or required license endorsements, as well as drivers who had criminal histories or were using illegal drugs. They also allegedly falsified vehicle inspection forms to indicate their buses consistently passed required pre- and post-trip company inspections. Those forms must be maintained for review by the NJ Motor Vehicle Commission and are relied upon by school districts as proof of bus safety.

In February 2019, an employee of F&A allegedly used heroin in F&A’s parking lot in East Orange before boarding a school bus to transport 12 special-needs children in Newark. While driving with the children on board, the employee reportedly overdosed and crashed the school bus into the wall of a building. Police who arrived on the scene used naloxone to revive the employee.

“Parents want to know their children are safe when they get on the bus to go to school each day,” Bruck said. “We will not tolerate the type of flagrant and widespread safety violations alleged here, involving unfit drivers as well as unsafe buses.”

“These defendants showed a complete disregard for the safety of schoolchildren by allegedly hiring bus drivers who were totally unsuited for the job and operating buses that were in no condition to be on the road,” OPIA Executive Director Thomas Eicher said. “We charge that they systematically falsified records to hide their egregious conduct. We have exposed them and will work to ensure that they never again put young students at risk.”

“When a parent entrusts a bus driver to safely transport their child to school, there should never be a concern that the individual behind the wheel may have a criminal record, may have failed a drug test or may be operating an unsafe vehicle. The callous and irresponsible behavior displayed by the owners of this company is more than just a violation of trust — it knowingly placed children in danger,” said Col. Patrick J. Callahan, superintendent of the New Jersey State Police. “We will continue to work alongside our law enforcement partners to hold accountable those who defy the rules and regulations that have been put in place for the safety of our children.”

New Jersey laws and regulations require that all school bus drivers possess a valid commercial driver’s license with two additional endorsements to carry students as passengers. School bus drivers and bus aides are also required to undergo drug testing and criminal background checks, and drivers or aides with a criminal history or with known substance abuse issues are prohibited from driving school buses.

The defendants allegedly falsely represented the qualifications of their drivers and aides, including licensing and background check information, as well as the condition of their vehicles. They thereby misrepresented that the company and its drivers and aides were qualified under state, federal and local law, as well as the terms of their contracts, to provide school busing services to students.

Interviews with bus drivers employed by F&A reportedly revealed that the defendants employed drivers who had known substance-abuse problems. They also allegedly employed numerous drivers who did not have valid commercial driver’s licenses, did not have required endorsements or had suspended licenses. They allegedly hired drivers before completion of criminal background checks or, in some instances, without any criminal background check.

The defendants allegedly forged, reused or otherwise falsified pre- and post-trip driver’s vehicle inspection reports that the company is required to complete and maintain. They allegedly falsely indicated that their buses consistently passed company inspections. In February and August of 2019, the MVC inspected F&A’s buses and nearly all of the company’s buses failed inspection on both occasions. 

When the MVC audited F&A’s driver files, it found that of the 51 drivers listed on F&A’s roster, four driver files were missing, 23 had no driver’s abstracts, two had expired abstracts, 11 had no physical exams, 13 had expired physical exams and four had expired copies of driver’s licenses. Only nine files were complete. The defendants allegedly told drivers to evade MVC inspections at school sites. They allegedly concealed violations by covertly directing persons employed as aides to drive school buses.

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. Fourth-degree crimes carry a sentence of up to 18 months in prison and a $10,000 fine.

The charges are merely accusations and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proved guilty in a court of law.