SCHOHARIE — Relatives of the limousine driver involved in a crash that killed 20 people in upstate New York said Tuesday they believe he was unwittingly assigned an unsafe vehicle.
The family of Scott Lisinicchia released a statement through a lawyer shortly after another attorney representing the limousine company, Prestige Limousine, said the driver might have been unfamiliar with the rural road.
Lisinicchia of Queensbury was driving the limousine that ran through a stop sign Saturday at the bottom of a T-intersection on a rural road 25 miles west of Albany. Two pedestrians and all 18 people in the limo celebrating a woman's birthday died.
The statement from Lisinicchia's lawyer said he would never have "knowingly put others in harm's way" and cautioned against jumping to conclusions.
"The family believes that unbeknownst to him he was provided with a vehicle that was neither roadworthy nor safe for any of its occupants," according to the statement from Grant & Longworth.
Prestige Limousine has been criticized for maintaining vehicles rife with violations and for employing a driver lacking a commercial license. The deadly crash also has shined fresh light on the business owner, a former FBI informant.
The limousine that ran the stop sign was cited for code violations Sept. 4, including a problem with the antilock brake system malfunction indicator system. Four of the Wilton-based company's limos were cited for 22 maintenance violations this year, though none were deemed critical.
"Those safety issues had been addressed and corrected," attorney Lee Kindlon, who represents Prestige, told CBS News in a segment Tuesday. "Not all infractions are major. A lot of these things are minor and were fixed."
State Department of Transportation spokesman Joseph Morrissey said a sticker was placed on the vehicle after the September inspection declaring it "unserviceable." He said Kindlon's assertion that the code violations had been corrected and the vehicle cleared for service was "categorically false."
Kindlon said he doesn't think those infractions contributed to the crash.
It was unclear whether the repairs were made, and a state transportation department spokesman didn't immediately respond to follow-up questions late Tuesday night.
Kindlon told the Times Union of Albany that the driver might have misjudged his ability to stop at the bottom of the long winding hill.
"I think he came up over that hill unfamiliar with territory," Kindlon said. "I think the state has been warned about that intersection for years and the Department of Transportation is just looking to point a finger."
One of the victims, Erin McGowan, texted a friend saying the party bus that was supposed to take them to Cooperstown had broken down on the way to pick them up and that the group obtained a stretch limo instead, the friend, Melissa Healey, told The New York Times. McGowan texted that the limo was in poor condition, with its motor "making everyone deaf."
The limousine, built from a 2001 Ford Excursion, ran the stop sign, crossed three lanes of traffic and hit a parked SUV before stopping in a wooded ditch.
Federal transportation records show that Prestige is owned by Shahed Hussain, who worked as an informant for the FBI after the Sept. 11 attacks. He infiltrated Muslim groups by posing as a terrorist sympathizer in at least three investigations.
State police say Shahed Hussain is in Pakistan.
On Monday his son, Nauman Hussain, who has operated the limo company, met with state police investigators for several hours, according to the Albany newspaper.
Kindlon declined to comment on the interview to the newspaper. He did not return calls seeking comment from The Associated Press.
In 2014, Nauman Hussain and his brother were accused by police of insisting they were each other after a traffic stop. Nauman Hussain was the passenger, but had a valid license. His brother did not. Police later discovered Nauman had an extensive suspension and conviction list which had been cleared, according to the Times Union.
Prestige's address is listed as a modest motel outside Saratoga Springs that is owned by Hussain, according to tax records.
Nearby residents complained to town code enforcement officials several times in recent years about the condition of Hussain's property.
In spring 2017, the state health officials shut down the motel and its low-income residents were forced to temporarily move out after a sewer line failed. The owner claimed a disgruntled former tenant sabotaged the infrastructure, but a building inspector blamed the problem on improper fittings and lack of support for the waste lines.
Associated Press writer Chris Carola in Albany contributed to this report.
FORT ANN — The last time Karina Halse saw her sister Amanda, they spent a magical day shopping for plants. Now, Amanda Halse’s collection of more than 100 plants will be used to decorate at her funeral.
Amanda Halse, 26, was one of 20 people who died in a limousine crash on Saturday. She was the only passenger with roots in the North Country, having graduated from Fort Ann High School in 2010.
Her family is now left wondering what she would have grown to become.
“She was at a prime in her life,” Karina said. “It sucks it got cut short.”
Memories of her sister gave Karina the strength to speak after the accident.
“I want people to know Amanda is a real human being, not just a name on a fatality list,” she said.
Amanda Halse, an artist, struggled to find a way to make a living with her artistic talents. She tried a bakery, but the mostly retail environment wasn’t for her. She spent two glorious years doing landscaping, but working in 90 degree weather grew old. Then she began working as a waitress while developing her own garden and doing art in her free time.
“She was finally making good money. All of those other jobs, she had to work three jobs at once just to make rent,” her sister said. “So the past two years, she’s been so happy, probably the happiest I’ve ever known her.”
And then, in a sudden accident in Schoharie, she was gone. The family is starting a GoFundMe account to raise money for the unexpected funeral. It can be found online at https://www.gofundme.com/amanda-halse039s-family.
Art played a big role in Amanda Halse’s life.
“Drawing, painting, sculpting,” her sister said. “She was really into octopuses in high school, so she put an octopus on a box.”
Her sister found herself laughing a little as she tried to explain why.
“She took the things you wouldn’t normally like and made them interesting,” she said.
Amanda kept creating after high school, through two years at SUNY Adirondack and a semester at SUNY Oswego.
“She just did it because she loved it,” her sister said. “She would often redo her paintings in her new style.”
She left college early, disappointed with an art class and enjoying parties more than schoolwork. But coming home was even worse.
“She was very depressed,” her sister said.
But she pulled herself back together. The next year, she and her best friend moved into an apartment in Troy. She got a job at a bakery and scheduled months of activities and social occasions. Her friends meant the world to her, her sister said; she even played on the varsity soccer team in high school because she wanted to play with her friends, and when she got depressed, she surrounded herself with friends.
“It was her actions that made her get better. Event after event, so she was never sitting at home sulking,” her sister said.
The experience allowed Amanda to help when Karina got deeply depressed in ninth grade. Her mother had fallen off a roof while working and spent four months in the hospital.
“Amanda was the one who stepped in,” Karina said. “She said, ‘Never give up.’ She got it as a tattoo on her foot. She got that for me.”
Now that lesson is getting her family through their worst moments ever.
It started with silence on Sunday morning, last week. Amanda was supposed to go to the Harvest Fest on Gore Mountain with Karina and their mother. Usually, she got there before her family was ready to leave.
“This time, we were waiting for her,” Karina said. “And she never came.”
Hours later, State Police broke the news. Now the family is planning a funeral they had never expected, both parents so distraught that they could not bring themselves to talk to reporters. But Karina vowed that the family would get through it, in Amanda’s name.
“That tattoo ... that’s what I’ll remember,” Karina said. “I won’t give up.”
GLENS FALLS — Democrat Tedra Cobb said this election is a clear choice between her record as a 30-year resident of the North Country, local legislator and health care advocate and U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, who has not lived in the NY-21 Congressional District and has harmed the district with her votes.
“My first policy difference between Elise Stefanik and me is who we take money from and who we are beholden to,” she said Tuesday in a meeting with The Post-Star editorial board.
Cobb, who lives in Canton, said she does not take money from pharmaceutical or oil and gas companies and is free to vote in the best interests of her constituents.
She got into this race because of the vote by Stefanik, R-Willsboro, to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Cobb said. Had that effort succeeded, it would have caused 64,000 people in the district to lose insurance and led to the closing of rural hospitals and nursing homes, Cobb said. Loss of jobs would have been a spinoff effect, she said.
Cobb said she supports expanding Medicare to everyone as an option, but would like to look at all different possibilities, including fixes to the Affordable Care Act.
“The guiding principle is that every person must have affordable and portable health care,” she said.
Cobb said Congress needs to hold hearings on this issue — in contrast to what happened with the tax bill, which she said passed in the middle of the night with “chicken scratch” written in the margins.
Medicare for all is attractive because administrative costs are 2 percent, much lower than with private insurers, according to Cobb. But, she said, expanding health care coverage could involve a hybrid system with Medicare and private insurance.
Costs go down when everyone is covered, she said, and added that she would also like to focus more on preventative medicine.
Cobb would support a tax increase on the wealthiest Americans to raise money for health care reform.
She said one negative effect of the Affordable Care Act is it caused some businesses to reduce employees’ hours down to 30 so they would not have to pay insurance. That forced people to pick up second jobs.
Cobb also criticized Stefanik’s votes to roll back environmental protections, such as allowing companies to dump coal dust into streams and rivers and cutting funding that protects Lake Champlain.
The federal government needs to invest in renewable energy infrastructure and energy conservation and help people make their homes more energy-efficient, she said.
“Our housing stock is old, and lower-income people are spending more of their income in heating their homes, which means they’re not able to invest in good food or education (or) clothing,” she said.
Cobb said she has a record of taking on businesses to protect the environment. While a college student, she fought against an incinerator plant setting up in St. Lawrence County. As a two-term county legislator, she organized resistance to the establishment of a concentrated animal feeding operation, she said — a huge dairy farm that would have had more than 80,000 cows. The company, Bion, decided against locating in St. Lawrence County.
On the same night as Cobb became the Democrat nominee, the Stefanik campaign tagged her with the label “Taxin’ Tedra,” because of her votes in the St. Lawrence County Legislature.
Cobb said many of those votes were for home rule legislation to fix problems like Medicaid costs, which were being pushed down to states. Every local government was struggling during the 2008 fiscal crisis, she said, and the county worked with the New York State Association of Counties to lobby the state to cap Medicaid expenses.
Cobb said that, unlike Stefanik, she understands the impact of the federal government’s actions on state and local governments.
“Elise Stefanik has never lived in this district, never paid taxes in this district, never served in a local government,” she said.
She would oppose any privatization of Social Security, which would allow Wall Street to gamble with people’s money, she said. She raised the 2008 stock market crash as an example of why privatization is a bad idea.
One way to make sure Social Security stays solvent is to raise the cap on income subject to Social Security taxes, she said.
She also criticized Stefanik for voting to roll back protections put in place after the financial collapse. One of those protections required financial advisers to disclose to investors the best course of action with their money, instead of pushing more risky options that might make more money for the adviser.
“The stock market might be great, but drive around this district and ask people how much money they have in the stock market,” she said.
Cobb said she supports a fix to the immigration problem. Farmers in the district are having trouble finding laborers. They rely on immigrant labor — some legal and some illegal.
Congress should create a program allowing renewable 3- to 5-year visas for agricultural workers, she said.
People who have been living in the country with temporary protected status after fleeing countries ravaged by war and natural disasters, such as Haiti and El Salvador, deserve an opportunity to become citizens and stay in the U.S., she said. They should not be forced to return to countries that are unsafe.
“This is about morality and fairness,” she said.
Cobb said she also supports a clean DACA bill, offering a path to citizenship for people brought to the U.S. as children and raised here as Americans.
Cobb said she believes the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement was a step in the right direction but does not do enough to get dairy farmers a fair price for their products.
“We’re willing to subsidize coal and oil, but we’re not willing to pay farmers what they need for milk,” she said.
Cobb runs her own consulting business and does organizational development. She is seeking to unseat Stefanik, who is finishing her second term. Green Party candidate Lynn Kahn is also running.
Cobb said she hopes can break through the hyperpartisan environment, evident recently in the fight over confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
“I have stayed true to my values, and I will continue to do so. And at the end of the day, I think those values will win. That’s why I’m in the race,” she said. “If I didn’t think people wanted a different kind of leadership, I wouldn’t be here.”
GLENS FALLS — The driver who crashed a limousine Saturday, killing himself and 19 others, was ticketed for using a cellphone while driving in Glens Falls in 2015 but didn’t pay the fine that was imposed, records show, raising questions about whether he should have had a driver’s license.
Scott Lisinicchia’s failure to pay the $125 fine could have resulted in his driver’s license being suspended. But it was unclear from the records whether the non-payment was reported to the state Department of Motor Vehicles or a suspension was sought.
Lisinicchia, 53, worked as a cab driver in Glens Falls for at least two years, getting a cab license in May 2014 and renewing it in December 2015, according to Glens Falls Police.
City police records do not denote if he was driving a cab when he was pulled over on Oct. 8, 2015, when a Glens Falls Police officer spotted him driving while using a handheld cellphone. The department’s files also do not indicate whether he was texting or talking on the phone.
He pleaded guilty on Feb. 1, 2016 to a non-moving violation of parking on the pavement and was fined $125 and ordered to participate in the Warren-Washington Counties Victims Impact Panel, a program designed to educate drivers about impaired, distracted and aggressive driving. He did complete the one-day program, but City Court records show the fine was not paid.
Under state Vehicle & Traffic Law, non-payment of a fine can result in a driver’s license suspension or revocation.
While state officials have said Lisinicchia did not have the proper commercial driver’s license to operate the 2001 Ford Excursion that crashed on Saturday, there has been no indication his privilege to drive a private vehicle had been suspended. The DMV’s press office did not respond to an inquiry about his driver history and the unpaid Glens Falls ticket on Tuesday afternoon.
Lisinicchia also received a ticket on June 9, 2014 in Glens Falls for unsafe opening of a vehicle door, a charge that is filed when someone opens a door into traffic. The fine and surcharges imposed in that case, which were not specified, were paid.
Lisnicchia listed a Moon Hill Place, Queensbury, address at the time he was issued the tickets, having also lived in North Creek after coming north from his native Saratoga County. Warren County Sheriff’s Office records show no interaction by him with that agency during his time living in Warren County, but prior media reports show he had misdemeanor and non-criminal drug charge arrests in Saratoga Springs in 2010 and 2013.
Police records also show he was issued three traffic tickets in Saratoga Springs between 2010 and 2015, charged with failure to signal a turn, having an obstructed view while driving and failure to wear a seatbelt, according to Post-Star newspartner NewsChannel 13 reporter Mark Mulholland. The dispositions of the cases was not available Tuesday, but police said none were considered open or outstanding.
Lisinicchia was driving for Prestige Limousine of Wilton on Saturday when the vehicle, which had failed recent inspections, careened off the road at the intersection of routes 30 and 30A. Lisinicchia, 17 passengers on the limousine and two bystanders were killed, and State Police and the National Transportation Safety Board are looking into what happened.
A lawyer for Prestige Limousine has pointed the finger at Lisinicchia, but lawyers for the driver’s family responded with a statement claiming that he would not “knowingly put others in harm’s way.”
“The family believes that, unbeknownst to him, he was provided with a vehicle that was neither roadworthy nor safe for any of its occupants,” lawyer George Longworth wrote in the statement.