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Limousine service operator charged in crash that killed 20

Hussain 

COBLESKILL — A limousine service operator was charged Wednesday with criminally negligent homicide in a crash that killed 20 people, while police continued investigating what caused the wreck and whether anyone else will face charges.

Nauman Hussain, 28, showed little emotion as he was arraigned Wednesday evening in an Albany-area court, and he ignored shouted questions from reporters as he left after posting $150,000 bond. A judge had entered a not guilty plea for him.

Earlier, his lawyer said that Hussain wasn’t guilty and that police were rushing to judgment in investigating Saturday’s stretch limo wreck.

But State Police Superintendent George Beach said Hussain hired a driver who shouldn’t have been behind the wheel of such a car, and the vehicle shouldn’t have been driven after state inspectors deemed it “unserviceable” last month.

“The sole responsibility for that motor vehicle being on the road on Saturday rests with Nauman Hussain,” Beach said, though he noted that investigators continue looking into whether anyone else should be held accountable in the crash.

Hussain’s car was packed with luggage when he was stopped Wednesday on Interstate 787, Schoharie County District Attorney Susan Mallery said.

Hussain’s lawyer, Lee Kindlon, said his client felt unsafe at home because he’d gotten threats.

The company, Prestige Limousine, has come under intense scrutiny since a 19-seater limo ran a stop sign and plowed into a parked SUV at the bottom of a long hill Saturday. The impact killed two pedestrians and 18 people in the limo, which was taking a group to a birthday bash.

Kindlon said his client handled only marketing duties and phone calls, while his father ran the company, though police called Hussain its operator.

“My client is not guilty,” Kindlon said. “The police jumped the gun in charging him with any crime.”

Under New York law, criminally negligent homicide involves not perceiving a substantial, unjustifiable risk that leads to someone’s death. It’s punishable by up to four years in prison.

Charged with a single count involving all 20 victims, Hussain spoke in a clear, firm voice as he gave brief answers to the judge’s questions about his finances and living arrangements. He turned twice to nod at relatives in the courtroom audience.

Hussain has had a brush with authorities before. State police accused him and his brother of claiming each other’s names after a 2014 traffic stop, which happened while the brother was driving without a valid license.

Their father, Prestige Limousine owner Shahed Hussain, also has a history with law enforcement — as a government informant in terror plot investigations after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Former shop owner questions possible limo owner link to fire

QUEENSBURY — Andrew Ratto has long wondered whether the luxury Bentley sedan in the bay of his auto repair business, and potentially one of its owners, were involved with the suspicious July 2013 fire that destroyed the Queensbury auto shop.

Saturday’s crash appeared to be the nation’s deadliest traffic accident since a bus full of Texas nursing home patients caught fire while fleeing 2005’s Hurricane Rita, killing 23.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday that the limo driver didn’t have the required commercial license, and that Prestige Limousine “had no business putting a failed vehicle on the road.”

The limo had been written up Sept. 4 for code violations, including a problem with the antilock brakes’ malfunction indicator system.

A sticker was placed on the vehicle declaring it “unserviceable,” state Department of Transportation spokesman Joseph Morrissey said.

It was the latest in a series of inspection knocks for the Wilton-based company. Four of its limos were cited this year with a total of 22 maintenance violations, though none was deemed critical.

Kindlon told CBS News on Tuesday the “safety issues had been addressed and corrected,” saying many were minor. But Morrissey said any assertion that the limo involved in the crash had been cleared for service was “categorically false.”

Kindlon said he didn’t think the infractions contributed to the crash. He suggested the driver, who died in the crash, might have misjudged his momentum on the hill.

The T-intersection at the bottom was a known danger spot, Kindlon noted. It was rebuilt after a deadly 2008 wreck, but there have since been other accidents at the junction.

“I think, frankly, the Department of Transportation and the state of New York is doing a great job in saying, ‘Look over there! It’s not our fault!’” Kindlon said.

The limo’s driver, Scott Lisinicchia of Queensbury, had been told he didn’t have the proper license to drive it during an Aug. 25 traffic stop, state police said Wednesday. They said a trooper issued violations, advised that Lisinicchia couldn’t drive the limo and “took steps to ensure that the vehicle was taken off the road.”

Lisinicchia’s family, meanwhile, said he was unwittingly put in an unsafe vehicle.

Kim Lisinicchia told CBS in an interview broadcast Wednesday that her husband repeatedly said he wouldn’t drive the car the way it was. But then “he trusted in what the limo company said, that the cars were all right,” she said.

She said her husband was an excellent, veteran driver with over 20 years of experience in tractor-trailers and was in fine health.

“I feel for these victims,” the widow said. “I am in no way trying to make it seem like it’s about me or my husband. I just want my husband to be vindicated. I have to stand for him, ‘cause nobody else will.”

Calling hours have been set for Amanda Halse, 26, who graduated from Fort Ann Central School in 2010, from 3 to 7 p.m. on Sunday at Regan Denny Stafford Funeral Home at 53 Quaker Road in Queensbury.


Local
Former shop owner questions possible limo owner link to fire

QUEENSBURY — Andrew Ratto has long wondered whether the luxury Bentley sedan in the bay of his auto repair business, and potentially one of its owners, were involved with the suspicious July 2013 fire that destroyed the Queensbury auto shop.

The weekend limousine crash in Schoharie that killed 20 people involved the company that is owned by the owner of that Bentley. It has prompted Ratto to ask police to take another look at the blaze that destroyed his business, Ridge Road Car Care.

No one was arrested for the July 31, 2013 blaze that destroyed the repair shop and at least 14 vehicles in and around the shop.

One of the vehicles was a 2005 Bentley sedan owned by Shahed Hussain, the felon from Wilton who also owns Prestige Limousine, whose company’s vehicle crashed Saturday in Schoharie, killing its driver, 17 passengers and two bystanders.

Ratto said the Bentley had been towed in to his shop with transmission problems, and the day before the fire, Hussain had been told that the vehicle needed about $15,000 in repairs for what appeared to be intentional damage to a transmission cooler line, repairs that would not be covered under warranty.

The luxury car was in the middle of the garage, in the area where the fire was believed to have started, and Ratto said he has always questioned why the front driver’s side door of the Bentley was found open after the fire. He said he did not believe it could open during the fire, nor could it have been opened afterward. It was closed when he was in the shop the night before the fire.

“State fire investigators determined the fire started in the middle of the shop, and the (Warren County) Sheriff’s Office concluded they believed someone had been in the shop,” Ratto said.

After the fire, Hussain collected a $39,000 insurance settlement for the destroyed Bentley, Ratto said. But Hussain’s insurance company then filed a claim seeking $70,000 from Ratto’s insurance carrier.

Ratto later learned that Hussain had been involved as an informant in a high-profile terror plot that stemmed from fraud-related convictions in the Albany area, and his sons had fraud-related arrests as well. One of the sons was the frequent driver of the Bentley, posing with it on social media.

That prompted some questions on Ratto’s part, but he said police seemed reluctant to explore that angle.

Warren County sheriff’s Lt. Steve Stockdale said sheriff’s officers would look into any information that Ratto provides, although the five-year statute of limitations to prosecute any arson case resulting from the fire passed this summer. There is a longer statute of limitations for some insurance fraud charges, though.


Local
Fort Edward's dire finances spur visitors center budget debate

FORT EDWARD — The Rogers Island Visitors Center is on thin ice as the Town Board is proposing to cut its budget by nearly 75 percent.

Village Trustee Ed Carpenter came before the board during its second budget workshop Tuesday night and asked members to reconsider.

Carpenter is also president of the Rogers Island Heritage Development Alliance, the group that runs the center, which tells the story of an important French and Indian War site as well as where Robert Rogers wrote down his famous “rules of ranging.”

The town’s draft 2019 budget cuts the visitor center from $38,500 to $10,800, which represents a 72 percent decrease.

“My biggest thing is, and I want to be on the record please, that we’re being hit with a 75 percent, 75 percent cut here when all the other departments that you have aren’t,” Carpenter said, emphasizing the percentage. “And I just believe when you’re dealing with a serious fiscal deficit that you hit everybody the same. ... I cannot function over there for $10,800.”

Carpenter said the $10,800 would not even cover the annual pay for the woman who staffs the visitor center.

“How am I going to pay the bills? That’s just a tremendous, dramatic cut. When I first got it, I took it real personally,” he said.

The town’s 2019 proposed budget currently totals $921,862, including a $149,000 loan payment to Washington County and an extra $17,000 toward attorney fees. That’s because WCC, the company that leased two dewatering sites to General Electric Co., stopped paying its property taxes. When someone stops paying their taxes, it’s up to the county to make towns and villages whole.

Washington County did that, but now Fort Edward owes the county about $800,000, to be paid in annual installments. The first one hits the 2019 budget, leaving the Town Board, with an already diminishing savings account, scrambling to find funds without surpassing the 2 percent tax cap.

Carpenter, distraught and at times taking off his glasses as he talked about his vision for the center, acknowledged the financial distress the town and village are in, as did George Conley, a Fort Edward resident who came to support Carpenter.

“I know we’re hurting,” Conley said. “I know everybody’s hurting. My school taxes just went up 42 percent. I’ll sit right here and say, I’m willing to pay a couple of extra dollars in my taxes if I see that visitors center hanging on, and maybe someday it’s going to thrive. ... It’s the only thing we have right now. I don’t see anything else here in Fort Edward that we can put our hand on that’s going to draw people into Fort Edward.”

Town Supervisor Terry Middleton told Carpenter that the visitors center is still getting $2,500 more than any other organization the town gives to, including the library and the Old Fort House Museum.

The visitors center was originally opened in 2001 and had a town budget of $90,000. Last year, the budget was cut from $41,500 to $38,500, which Carpenter said is bare bones already. It includes paying the one staff member who opens and curates the center, cost of insurance and the bills to operate the building.

The center is open Wednesday through Sunday from May to October, and Carpenter said nine out of 10 visitors are from out of town. Carpenter said with the new proposed budget he’d likely have to close the doors by July 1, or be open one day a week.

“You can’t just pull the plug and say, ‘Ed, this is on you, bye, bye, too bad,’” Carpenter said. “I’m asking you to work together.”

Middleton said he would see what he could do, but continued to give a larger picture of the budget crisis.

“The only thing I’m going to say is, we’ll look, but what you’re asking for, what we cut, was almost 2 percent of our total budget,” Middleton said. “And when we had the meeting the other night, we were talking how not to lay off people here. That was the topic of conversation we had.”

One of the town’s largest expenses is its garbage pickup, and the board had also considered cutting a highway department worker from the garbage line item. It has already cut a lifeguard position from the local swimming pool in this budget draft.

The board is staying away from cutting garbage services for now, said Town Board member Timothy Fisher during the Tuesday night meeting, as there are many senior and low-income households that rely on the service, which is offered at a significantly lower cost than private haulers.

The board is meeting for one more budget workshop. It is scheduled for 10 a.m. on Oct. 26 at Town Hall.


Local
Market forces put America's recycling industry in the dumps

ALBANY — America’s recycling industry is in the dumps.

A crash in the global market for recyclables is forcing communities to make hard choices about whether they can afford to keep recycling or should simply send all those bottles, cans and plastic containers to the landfill.

Mountains of paper have piled up at sorting centers, worthless. Cities and towns that once made money on recyclables are instead paying high fees to processing plants to take them. Some financially strapped recycling processors have shut down entirely, leaving municipalities with no choice but to dump or incinerate their recyclables.

“There’s no market. We’re paying to get rid of it,” says Ben Harvey, president of EL Harvey & Sons, which handles recyclables from about 30 communities at its sorting facility in Westborough, Massachusetts. “Seventy-five percent of what goes through our plant is worth nothing to negative numbers now.”

It all stems from a policy shift by China, long the world’s leading recyclables buyer. At the beginning of the year it enacted an anti-pollution program that closed its doors to loads of waste paper, metals or plastic unless they’re 99.5 percent pure. That’s an unattainable standard at U.S. single-stream recycling processing plants designed to churn out bales of paper or plastic that are, at best, 97 percent free of contaminants such as foam cups and food waste.

The resulting glut of recyclables has caused prices to plummet from levels already depressed by other economic forces, including lower prices for oil, a key ingredient in plastics.

The three largest publicly traded residential waste-hauling and recycling companies in North America — Waste Management, Republic Services and Waste Connections — reported steep drops in recycling revenues in their second-quarter financial results. Houston-based Waste Management reported its average price for recyclables was down 43 percent from the previous year.

“A year ago, a bale of mixed paper was worth about $100 per ton; today we have to pay about $15 to get rid of it,” says Richard Coupland, vice president for municipal sales at Phoenix-based Republic, which handles 75 million tons of municipal solid waste and 8 million tons of recyclables nationwide annually. “Smaller recycling companies aren’t able to stay in business and are shutting down.”

Kirkwood, Missouri, announced plans this summer to end curbside recycling after a St. Louis-area processing facility shut down. Officials in Rock Hill, South Carolina, were surprised to learn that recyclables collected at curbside were being dumped because of a lack of markets. Lack of markets led officials to suspend recycling programs in Gouldsboro, Maine; DeBary, Florida; Franklin, New Hampshire; and Adrian Township, Michigan. Programs have been scaled back in Flagstaff, Arizona; La Crosse, Wisconsin; and Kankakee, Illinois.

Other communities are maintaining recycling programs but taking a financial hit as regional processors have raised rates to offset losses. Richland, Washington, is now paying $122 a ton for Waste Management to take its recycling; last year, the city was paid $16 a ton for the materials. Stamford, Connecticut, received $95,000 for recyclables last year; the city’s new contract requires it to pay $700,000.

A big part of the problem, besides lower commodity prices overall, is sloppy recycling.

In the early days of recycling, people had to wash bottles and cans, and sort paper, plastic, glass and metal into separate bins. Now there’s single-stream recycling, which allows all recyclables to be tossed into one bin. While single-stream has benefited efficiency, and customers like it, it’s been a challenge on the contamination side.

A tour of Republic’s facility in Beacon, about an hour’s drive north of New York City, makes the challenges clear. A third of the material dumped by collection trucks is non-recyclable “contaminants” such as garden hoses, picnic coolers and broken lawnmowers. Workers have to pull that out and truck it to a landfill, adding to overall costs. Plastic bags contaminate bales of other materials and tangle machinery. Spilled ketchup and greasy pizza boxes turn otherwise marketable material into garbage.

“The death of recycling was completely avoidable and incredibly easily fixed,” says Mitch Hedlund, executive director of Recycle Across America, which advocates standardized labeling on recycling bins so people understand what goes in and what doesn’t.

A range of initiatives have been launched to get people to recycle right. Chicago is putting “oops” tags on curbside recycling bins with improper contents and leaving them uncollected. Rhode Island is airing “Let’s Recycle Right” ads.

While some recyclables have been diverted to other Asian markets since China’s closure, there are also signs of market improvement in the U.S. to offset the lost business, said David Biderman, CEO and executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America. He noted Chinese paper manufacturers that had relied on recyclables imported into their country have recently purchased shuttered mills in Kentucky, Maine and Wisconsin.

Meanwhile, recyclable materials processors are re-negotiating contracts with municipalities to reflect the fact that prices paid for recyclables no longer offset the cost of collecting and sorting them.

“What we’re advocating is to step back and re-look at recycling,” Republic’s Coupland said. “This is the new normal. The model no longer funds itself.”

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Associated Press writer Andrew Selsky in Salem, Oregon, contributed to this report.