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Owner in Limo Crash Had Shoddy Record and Shady Dealings

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A driver with an improper license. A limousine company with a trail of failed inspections and ties to a scheme to illegally obtain driver’s licenses. And a limousine that had also been deemed unsafe.

Two days after a devastating limousine crash in upstate New York that killed 20 people, officials revealed new details about their inquiry that suggested the trip never should have been allowed to happen.

The mounting questions about the accident increasingly centered on the limousine company, Prestige Limousine, which had a shoddy record, did business out of a low-budget hotel and whose owner may have a curious history with federal law enforcement. On Monday, officials moved to suspend the company’s operations and seize its vehicles.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo told reporters that the limousine involved in the accident had failed an inspection last month and “was not supposed to be on the road.”

The owner of the limousine company, Shahed Hussain, has the same name and address as that of a former informant for the F.B.I. who has testified in two prominent terrorism cases, according to public records. A law enforcement official suggested that his son may operate the limousine company, and a state law enforcement official confirmed that the police had interviewed one of Mr. Hussain’s sons.

Shortly before the crash, one of the victims inside the limousine sent a text suggesting that she was worried about the vehicle’s condition, using a profanity to describe the car. And investigators suggested that past problems with the company — its vehicles had failed several inspections, according to records and state officials — and its owners may have contributed to the accident.

The limousine company issued a statement on Monday expressing condolences to the relatives of those killed. “We are performing a detailed internal investigation to determine the cause of the accident,’’ the statement said, adding that the company had voluntarily taken its vehicles off the road. “We have already met with state and federal investigators, and plan to do so again.’’

The driver of the vehicle, who also died in the crash, has not been identified by authorities, but social media posts from family members said he was Scott Lisinicchia, who was 53. Mr. Cuomo said that the driver “did not have the appropriate driver’s license to be operating that vehicle.”

Federal officials said that the crash in Schoharie, N.Y., a small town about 40 miles west of Albany, was the worst transportation-related accident in the country since a 2009 plane crash outside Buffalo killed 50 people.

On Monday, investigators continued to search for clues as to what caused the 2001 Ford Excursion limousine to speed down a rural highway, through a stop sign and into an unoccupied car, killing 17 friends in the vehicle who were on their way to celebrate a birthday party. An assistant professor of geology at the State University of New York, Brian Hough, and his father-in-law were struck and killed as they stood near a parking lot at the base of the hill, according to Syracuse.com and Facebook posts.

In a briefing at a regional headquarters of the State Police outside Albany, Robert L. Sumwalt, the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said that his agency’s inquiry was focusing on mechanical and human causes for the accident and that there was extensive damage to the front and left side of the limousine.

He suggested that the engine of the Excursion had been thrust backward into the driver’s compartment, saying the evidence indicated a “high-energy impact.” But he declined to say definitively that the vehicle had been speeding; there were no skid marks leading to the crash site.

Investigators also said they had recovered an airbag control module, which was being analyzed for crash data.

State Police officials suggested that the company had been on their radar before the crash. “That company and that vehicle have been under scrutiny” in the past, said Maj. Robert Patnaude of the New York State Police. He also suggested that Mr. Hussain could face criminal charges. “That will be part of our investigation,” Major Patnaude said.

The investigation will also include autopsies of the victims, a tight-knit group that included four sisters, two brothers and several young couples. Those victims had yet to be identified by the authorities but heartbroken friends and relatives were already posting testimonials.

“I lost my two best friends in this,” wrote Justin Cushing, whose brother Patrick, friend Adam Jackson and his cousin, Erin McGowan, all died in the limousine. “I’m shaking.”

Katie Kent, who identified herself as Professor Hough’s aunt in posts on Facebook, called the SUNY geologist “an accomplished professor, an amazing husband, and daddy.”

There were also unsettling signs that the victims may have been concerned by the condition of the limousine. One friend of Ms. McGowan said that she had received a text telling her that a party bus that was supposed to take the group of friends to the Ommegang brewery in Cooperstown had broken down on the way to pick them up.
Instead, the group obtained a stretch limousine, which was in shoddy condition, Ms. McGowan told her friend, Melissa Healey.

Ms. Healey, 33, who had been the maid of honor at Ms. McGowan’s wedding this past summer, shared the texts with The New York Times.

“The motor is making everyone deaf,” wrote Ms. McGowan, before Ms. Healey asked where they had rented the car.
Ms. McGowan responded that she wasn’t sure, but then added, “When we get to brewery we will all b deaf.”

They never made it.

The limousine company is based at the Crest Inn Suites & Cottages in Gansevoort, N.Y., a small town north of Albany, and on Monday, state troopers were at the hotel. The State Police said they had seized three vehicles from the company and believed that Mr. Hussain was outside the United States.

Arnie Cornett, the manager at the hotel, identified the owner as “Malik” and said he lived in Dubai. Mr. Hussain, the informant, went by Malik when he helped the F.B.I. infiltrate a mosque in Albany.

Lincoln Prosser, who lives at the hotel with her husband and three children, said she had not seen any limousines parked outside. But when she lived there between 2013 and 2015, she said, she noticed a few limousines parked there, some of which appeared to be broken down.

Mr. Hussain, the man whose name seems to be associated with the limousine company, posed as a wealthy Muslim radical and was the central prosecution witness in a 2004 federal sting focusing on a pizzeria owner and an imam at an Albany mosque. Six years later, Mr. Hussain, who posed as a terrorist, played a key role in the government’s case in a plot to blow up two synagogues in the Bronx.

He became an F.B.I. informant after being charged in 2002 with a scheme that involved taking money to illegally help people in the Albany area get driver’s licenses.

The intersection where the accident occurred was known among residents as being notoriously dangerous: a tricky T-shape, where east-west traffic often sped by in excess of the posted 50 m.p.h. speed limit.

“This has long been a source of discord in Schoharie,” said Rosemary Christoff Dolan, who had visited the accident site on Sunday.

Three years ago, state transportation officials banned trucks from the route after a tractor-trailer barreled through the same intersection. That was one of four accidents reported there since the Department of Transportation made changes to the intersection in 2008 to improve safety.

The police said that the limousine had been traveling downhill toward the intersection when it failed to stop, crossing the busy highway, glancing off the second vehicle in the parking lot of the Apple Barrel, a local shop, and striking the two pedestrians nearby. The limousine then crashed into a shallow ravine.

Questions about the safety and regulation of such oversized vehicles have also been raised. According to the State Police, limousine drivers are required to wear a seatbelt but passengers who are often riding in open spaces in the back are not. A lack of any restraint can cause serious injuries in a crash — only one person inside the limousine on Saturday survived the initial impact before being pronounced dead at a hospital in Albany.

On Monday, Mr. Cuomo seemed to question whether more legislative oversight of the industry was the answer. “I don’t know that this a situation where you can find a new law or a new regulation,” he said.

Similar oversized vehicles have been involved in fatal accidents in New York before: In 2015, a limousine carrying a bridal party of eight women was hit by a pickup truck on Long Island, in Cutchogue, N.Y., killing four people.
As the investigation into the crash continues, families of the victims continue to grapple with the fallout from the crash.

“They were all friends,” said Valerie Abeling, Ms. McGowan’s aunt. “Most of them were lifelong friends. Relatives, cousins, family.”

Ms. Healey, Ms. McGowan’s friend, said she was supposed to have gone on the trip, but could not make it. She had a cold.

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Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/08/nyregion/prestige-limousine-crash-schoharie.html

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New York went an entire weekend without a shooting or homicide for the first time in 25 years

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New York City had its first weekend without a shooting or a homicide in 25 years, the New York Police Department announced Monday.

“We went Friday, Saturday, Sunday without any shootings and homicides,” NYPD Chief James O’Neill told reporters. “That’s the first time in decades, and that’s something not just the NYPD, but all New Yorkers can be proud of.”

The last Friday-Saturday-Sunday time period during which no shootings occurred across all five of New York City’s Burroughs happened in 1993.

In 2017, New York City saw fewer than 300 killings for the entire year, the New York Post reported at the end of December, marking the fewest of those crimes in nearly 70 years.
There were 292 murders in the New York City in 2017, down from the 334 murders that occurred in 2016.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio lauded the department for that in January: “No one believed it was possible to get under 300 murders,” he said, referring to the 2017 numbers. “The NYPD reached the goal that no one thought possible.”

For 2018, the number of murders in the nation’s largest city is on the rise, The Wall Street Journal reported in June.

New York City saw 147 murders between January 1 and June 30, 2018, an 8% increase from the number of murders during the same time period last year, The Journal wrote, citing data compiled by the city.

Source: https://www.thisisinsider.com/new-york-first-weekend-without-a-shooting-in-25-years-2018-10

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Is New York City ready for the e-scooter revolution?

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The micromobility revolution that has permeated cities across the U.S. has yet to arrive in New York City, but—having conquered the West Coast through a combination of rule-breaking and eventual cooperation—electric scooter companies are now looking to make their mark in the five boroughs.

As The Verge has pointed out, there’s money to be made there; Bird, one of the leading scooter companies, has reportedly been valued at $2 billion in recent months. And New York City, with its more than 8 million residents—more than half of whom regularly use public transportation—could be a “tremendous scooter city,” according to Gil Kazimirov, the general manager of Lime, the micromobility start-up.

But before that money can pour in, there’s a skeptical populace to win over, some of whom see e-scooters on the same plane as Thanos. There are also laws that must be changed and streets that need to be made safer for the more rugged version of the push-assist scooters that Bird wants to bring to New York.

Those first two necessities are what Bird, the company most prominently trying to enter New York’s market, seem to be focusing on at the moment. The start-up, which is based in Santa Monica, has been courting politicians on both sides of the aisle, though neither Eric Ulrich (a Republican who’s pushed for unfettered competition among bike share companies) nor Robert Cornegy (a Democrat who participated in Bird’s recent Bed-Stuy demo) would comment about their feelings on e-scooters. Bird even snagged one of the city’s most prominent street safety advocates, making clear that it’s approaching New York City expansion in a responsible fashion not usually embraced by “break shit, apologize later” disruptonauts.

Bird has also tried to win over skeptics with demonstrations of how its service works—there was one in Bed-Stuy in September, and one earlier this month that was meant to show how e-scooters could be a key component of the looming L train shutdown. Bird donated scooters for a mass ride from the Myrtle-Wyckoff station to the Grand Street stop, which will be a departure point for a series of Brooklyn-to-Manhattan SBS routes. The demo offered not just a look at how the scooters work but also a proof of concept of how they could help get people around if trains are packed to the brim.

The group ride seemed to win over Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who liked his scooter enough to throw it in his SUV and show up with it at another press conference that morning in Brooklyn Heights. Before the Bird ride started, Adams told the assembled crowd in the Myrtle-Wyckoff stop’s pedestrian plaza—itself a symbol of reclaiming the streets from cars—that “too many car riders are making decisions for millions of New Yorkers who are not in vehicles. Selfishly, they think that they have to drive alone.” While Adams doesn’t have the power to vote for the impending bill to legalize e-scooters, he did at least give rhetorical support to their legalization.

That effort is being spearheaded in part by City Council member Rafael Espinal, who announced his support for scooters in a Daily News op-ed earlier this year, and is currently working with Transportation Committee chair Ydanis Rodriguez to introduce a bill legalizing them. Espinal’s interest in the scooter issue is driven not only by their potential usefulness during the L train shutdown, but also as a way to include his district (he represents parts of Bushwick, Brownsville, and Cypress Hills) in a transportation system that Citi Bike has yet to meaningfully reach.

“What I’d like to see is an expansion of modes of transportation—not only in Manhattan, but in the outer-outer-boroughs,” Espinal tells Curbed. “We have Citi Bike, but it hasn’t made its way out to East New York and other neighborhoods on the outskirts of the outer boroughs. We have to make sure this transportation is available to everyone.”

But while scooter companies can stage events and work with elected officials, the issue of safety—and aggressively redesigning the city’s streets—is what will no doubt determine how widely adopted scooters become in New York. While their top speed of 15 miles per hour make them inherently riskier than bikes, a Washington Post article about the rise in scooter-related emergency room visits notes that the number of bike lanes in Washington, D.C. was one of the reasons the city didn’t see the same rate of increases in injuries as other American cities.

Bird itself has put a huge emphasis on bike lanes, telling Curbed that “protected, well-maintained bike lanes are part of our vision for a safe future for all road users—be they on foot, bikes, or scooters.” The company has also pledged $1 per scooter per day in each city it operates in to help cities pay for more protected bike lanes, but at least in New York, opposition to bike lanes has had less to do with price and more to do with parking spots. And on that front, radical thinking seems to be in short supply.

Cornegy, whose district mostly encompasses Bed-Stuy, told Streetsblog that he would “stand up for more protected bike lanes” when he was at Bird’s Bed-Stuy event, but he was also a high-profile opponent of the Classon Avenue bike lane, which was installed in response to a cyclist’s death in 2016.

The city’s addition of bike infrastructure has not stopped opposition from community boards; new bike lanes and other improvements are still at the mercy of the right combination of political pressure. Even Adams—who’s called for something as ambitious as a Flatbush Avenue bike lane next to Prospect Park—was ambivalent about the relationship between community boards and the need to quickly shift space away from cars.

“We should never count out the voices of people,” Adams said after the Brooklyn Heights press conference. “[Community boards’] advisory status helps as we carve out bike lanes, because bike lanes are personalized to those communities. It doesn’t mean a community board should be able to have veto power if it’s unreasonable. Allow community boards to have their space to voice their concerns; but at the same time, don’t allow anybody in government to get in the way and stop progress.”

Espinal says that when it comes to New York’s existing network, “the city can be doing more to make sure that bike lanes are acceptable and not being blocked,” though said he’d rather see the results of a scooter pilot program before committing to any type of radical street redesigns.

But Curbed’s urbanism editor Alissa Walker, who’s written previously about how micromobility give cities a huge opportunity to move away from being so car-centric, said that instead of reacting once scooters are being used, street design “needs to be a part of the conversation at the same time.” Without being comfortable on the streets, people either won’t ride scooters, Walker says, or wind up taking to the sidewalks—which simply wouldn’t work in New York City.

One idea the city can embrace is instituting the Vision Zero Design Standard, a series of pedestrian, cycling, and mass transit improvements that are implemented whenever a road needs to be fixed. “It traditionally takes longer to build protected bike lanes than it does to, say, empty a truckload of scooters onto the street,” says Transportation Alternatives’ Joseph Cutrufo. “The best way to accommodate more people on bikes and scooters is to make safer street redesigns part of regular repaving projects. This way, every time a street is repaved, we have the opportunity to make our streets more accommodating for New Yorkers on two wheels, and, more to the point, to save lives.” While Cutrofo says the idea has been endorsed by a majority of members on the City Council, it hasn’t been instituted in any street repavings yet.

As a scooter agnostic/skeptic, Bird’s demonstration earlier this month certainly worked on me: The mass of riders didn’t seem to have any huge problems with Bushwick’s streets that are barely habitable to bikes in some stretches, especially the heavily-trucked and pockmarked stretch of Knickerbocker and Morgan Avenues north of Flushing Avenue. If you squinted, you could see a vision of the future where people used the scooters in peace, although they had some good fortune in clear bike lanes and a dearth of double-parked cars on side streets.

And while some might worry about scooter companies “imposing their will” on the city, the fact remains that car companies have already imposed their will on New York in a way that e-scooters could never possibly match. Besides, if you’re out on the street, you can already see the scooters are there. The same afternoon as the Bird demonstration, I saw a scooter rider salmoning on Ann Street, just blocks from City Hall. Later, I came across an e-scooter rider named Mike while I was walking down Flatbush Avenue.

“It’s convenient, you can slip between cars,” Mike said when asked what he liked about his push-assist scooter that he bought online. He also sees larger benefits for the city if it embraces the scooter revolution. “I feel like you can definitely help the environment, and even start new businesses. Cars suck, and you could open a bunch of mom and pop shops to service the scooters and sell scooters, and just help with the transportation system.”

Source: https://ny.curbed.com/2018/10/15/17969900/new-york-electric-scooters-bird-legislation-street-design

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NYC DRIVER ALLEGEDLY BEAT JEWISH MAN WALKING TO SYNAGOGUE IN ROAD RAGE INCIDENT

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A taxi driver in New York reportedly beat a 62-year-old Hasidic Jewish man on Sunday as he walked to synagogue in Brooklyn, police said.

Lipa Schwartz, 62, was walking in broad daylight on his way to synagogue in Borough Park when he was allegedly brutally attacked by a cab driver. Farrukh Afzal, 37, was driving toward 46th Street and 13th Avenue in Borough Park around 7:30 a.m. before he slammed on his brakes and jumped out of his car. He then proceeded to beat Schwartz, police said.

Surveillance video captured Afzal over the victim in the middle of the intersection while pummeling Schwartz in the head. The victim suffered a split lip, a cut ear and other injuries, according to the blog BoroPark24, which first reported the incident.

“I feared for my life,” Schwartz told the blog. “I knew it was either fight my way out of this or I might be dead.”

In an interview with WABC, Schwartz said he asked Afzal, “What did I do to you that you tried to murder me? Tell me.” Afzal did not respond.

Schwartz told WABC that he did not know why Afzal attacked him, but said he believed it was because he was Jewish. Authorities initially said hate crime charges could be filed, but the investigation led detectives to conclude the attack occurred due to a road rage incident.

Afzal’s lawyer claimed Schwartz punched the vehicle’s window as he crossed the street, prompting his client to fear for his life, the New York Post reported. The two men reportedly began yelling at each other after Afzal honked at Schwartz for walking too slowly, prosecutors said. Schwartz then punched Afzal’s car window, prompting Afzal to jump out of his car and allegedly commit the assault.

The attacker was not licensed by New York City’s Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC). The TLC did not immediately respond to Newsweek’s request for comment.

However, in a statement to WABC, the TLC said, “The driver is not licensed by the TLC, and has been summoned by the TLC in the past for unlicensed operation of an unlicensed vehicle and being an unlicensed operator.”

Afzal, from Staten Island, was arraigned on charges of second-degree attempted assault, third-degree assault, menacing and harassment. None of the charges included a hate crime component, WABC reported. He was being held in lieu of $15,000 bail.

Police said Afzal had eight prior arrests.

Source: https://www.newsweek.com/nyc-livery-driver-allegedly-beat-jewish-man-walking-synagogue-road-rage-1170952

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