ALBANY — The owner of the 2001 stretch Ford Excursion involved in the tragic Schoharie County crash appears to have circumvented the state’s inspection process repeatedly after buying the vehicle in 2016, according to state records obtained by the Times Union.
The vehicle was required to undergo rigorous inspections overseen by the state Department of Transportation every six months. Instead, the Excursion was improperly inspected by auto centers licensed by the state Department of Motor Vehicles during the two years it was in service for Prestige Limousine. The most recent inspection, according to records, was performed in May by Mavis Discount Tire shop in Saratoga Springs.
George Deutsch of Royale Limousine in Albany, who sold the vehicle to Prestige’s owner Shahed Hussain in 2016, said the vehicle was a DOT-regulated vehicle, and Hussain should have been aware of its status.
“Either way, you can’t get into this business and say ‘I did not know,’” Deutsch said. “There’s no other way to do business.”
Records obtained by the Times Union show that Hussain’s Wilton-based company appears to have bypassed the DOT inspection process for nearly two years after Prestige bought the vehicle from Royale. The company didn’t even try to obtain proper DOT certification, also called operating authority.
Over the same period, the limo’s registration was repeatedly revoked by the DMV for having its insurance canceled multiple times.
It’s unclear if the Excursion’s registration was still suspended on Oct. 6, when it hurtled into the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store in Schoharie and plunged into a ditch. All 18 people aboard and two bystanders were killed.
The limo, carrying a group of 17 friends and family members, had been traveling from Amsterdam to Cooperstown for a birthday celebration at the time of the crash.
Hussain, a former FBI informant with a long history of shady business deals, is believed to be in Pakistan. His son Nauman Hussain, who goes by Arslan and was reportedly operating the business at the time of the crash, has been charged with one count of criminally negligent homicide.
The State Police and the National Transportation Safety Board are leading the investigation into the crash.
Deutsch, who owns one of the Capital Region’s largest limo companies, sold Prestige Limousine the stretch 2001 Ford Excursion as well as two stretch Lincoln Town Cars.
Under state law, stretch limousines like the 2001 Excursion have to go through rigorous inspections with the state DOT every six months. The process is similar to the one required for school buses.
According to records obtained by the Times Union, Prestige circumvented that requirement by going to DMV-licensed inspection stations instead.
Those stations are specifically banned from issuing inspection stickers to stretch limos. The DMV has refused to answer questions about where Prestige obtained inspection stickers for the Excursion.
“In light of the ongoing criminal investigation ... it would be irresponsible to comment on any information that could compromise the integrity of that investigation,” a DMV spokeswoman said in a statement.
Records obtained by the Times Union show that on July 22, 2016, the Excursion received a DMV inspection sticker at the Wilton Truck Center off Exit 16 of the Northway.
A DOT inspector noted the same DMV inspection sticker on the limo in a March 21, 2018, spot inspection in Wilton that ended with the Excursion being ordered off the road due to bad brakes and other mechanical and paperwork issues. The inspector also noted that Prestige should have been inspected under the DOT’s bus program.
But less than two months later, the Hussains on May 11 took the Excursion to the Mavis Discount Tire shop on South Broadway in Saratoga Springs, where it passed inspection again, even though stretch limos are not supposed to get such stickers.
A call to Mavis’s headquarters was not returned on Wednesday. The owner of Wilton Truck Center did not return a call seeking comment.
The DOT inspected the Excursion again on Sept. 4, again ordering the limo off the road. An agency spokesman said in an email Wednesday that DOT “inspected the crash vehicle, placed the vehicle out of service, and affixed a sticker to the windshield ordering that the vehicle not be used. The owner/operator of the vehicle removed this sticker and intentionally violated the law, and as a result, one of the owners has been charged with criminally negligent homicide.”
The Times Union has asked for the state’s inspection records on the Excursion under the Freedom of Information Law, although the DOT has told the newspaper that it is taking longer than usual to fulfill the request “due to a high number of FOIL requests recently received.”
A lawyer representing Prestige and the Hussains in civil matters related to the case declined comment.
Deutsch, the Royale Limousine owner, said that from the time his company purchased the Excursion, he always went through the proper DOT inspection process, and that the limo was safe when his company operated it.
“Our records our impeccable,” Deutsch said.
Deutsch said his company, which is located on Lark Street in downtown Albany, only sold the Excursion when his company was expanding its bus and taxi operations and needed to make space at its garage by selling off older vehicles.
Deutsch said that he helped the NTSB get up to speed on limousine companies since the federal agency usually deals with accidents involving planes, trains and buses.
“The NTSB has been in our facility for weeks,” Deutsch said. “They were kind of in a twilight zone with (understanding) limousines; they were able to see how we operated.”
NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss declined to comment.
“The investigation is ongoing,” Weiss said.