LATHAM, N.Y. (AP) — Police charged a limousine service operator Wednesday with criminally negligent homicide in a crash that killed 20 people, while the man's lawyer said that he wasn't guilty and that police were rushing to judgment.
Prestige Limousine operator Nauman Hussain was taken into custody Wednesday in a traffic stop on a highway near Albany, New York State Police said.
The company, which Hussain's father owns, has come under intense scrutiny since Saturday's crash outside Albany killed two pedestrians and 18 people in a super-stretch limo. It was taking a group to a birthday bash.
Prestige's vehicles have been cited with a roster of safety violations, and state officials have said the limo involved in the crash failed an inspection and was declared "unserviceable" Sept. 4. The company's lawyer, Lee Kindlon, has said safety problems were fixed, though the state says that's not so.
As Hussain awaited arraignment and police planned a news briefing on the case, Kindlon said the 28-year-old Hussain just handled marketing duties and phone calls while his father ran the company, though police call Hussain its operator.
"My client is not guilty," Kindlon told reporters gathered outside a state police headquarters in Latham. "The police jumped the gun in charging him with any crime."
Hussain has had a brush with law enforcement 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.
In Saturday's crash, a 19-seater Prestige limo ran off the road and plowed into a parked SUV at the bottom of a long hill in Schoharie, about 25 miles west of Albany. The 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, that the limo had failed a September inspection and that the company "had no business putting a failed vehicle on the road."
"Prestige has a lot of questions to answer," the Democrat said at the time.
The limo had been cited 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 Gansevoort, New York-based company. Four of its limos were cited with a total of 22 maintenance violations this year, though none was deemed critical.
"Those safety issues had been addressed and corrected," Kindlon told CBS News in a segment on Tuesday. "Not all infractions are major. A lot of these things are minor and were fixed."
But Morrissey said any assertion that the limo involved in the crash had been cleared for service was "categorically false."
Even if the violations had been corrected, the owner would have needed a new inspection and new approval to transport passengers, the Transportation Department said.
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 a hill.
Driver Scott Lisinicchia's family, meanwhile, said he was unwittingly put in an unsafe vehicle.
Kim Lisinicchia told CBS in an interview broadcast Wednesday that she heard her husband repeatedly say: "I'm not going to drive this, like this. You need to get me another car." But then "he trusted in what the limo company said, that the cars were all right."
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."
A vigil for the victims was set for Wednesday evening in a Schoharie school gymnasium.
Services have been set for some of the victims, including 24-year-old Savannah Devonne Bursese, of Johnstown, the accident's youngest victim. Her family is holding a private service Friday. In nearby Amsterdam, a funeral Mass is scheduled Saturday for the four King sisters, three of their husbands and the brother of one of the husbands.
Associated Press writer Jennifer Peltz in New York contributed to this report.