Criminal charges are possible for owner of bus in fatal Sherman crash

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by By MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGER / The Dallas Morning News

wfaa.com

Posted on August 15, 2009 at 4:44 PM

Updated Friday, Oct 16 at 4:34 PM

The Houston bus owner whose passenger-filled coach crashed Friday morning in Sherman, killing 17, could face criminal charges, a Harris County prosecutor said Monday.

Harris District Attorney Ken Magidson declined to say whether owner Angel De La Torre faces prosecution, but a spokeswoman for his office did not rule out charges given that the bus company owner had violated a long list of federal safety violations and other laws.

"Criminal charges are possible," said assistant district attorney Donna Hawkins.

The bus carrying 55 passengers bound for Missouri left Houston on Thursday night with a bad front right tire and a driver with a checkered driving record.

The owner's company had been ordered out of business for safety violations just two months before, and the driver, Barrett Wayne Broussard of Houston, has twice been ticketed for speeding - including once while driving a bus. He also has a 2001 drunken driving conviction.

The bus crashed through a guardrail in rural Grayson County early Friday, dropping into a ravine. About 40 people were injured.

Mr. Broussard remains in critical condition, hospital officials said Monday. Nineteen passengers, including five who are in critical condition, remain hospitalized, according to The Associated Press.

Federal investigators have been scouring the site for clues about what went wrong. A forensics expert from the National Transportation Safety Board is due to arrive today to take custody of the so-called black box data recorder, a tool investigators hope will help reveal what happened just before the crash.

But even as experts deconstruct the wreck, state and federal investigators continue to look at what they have called Mr. De La Torre's "grossly deficient" maintenance record.

Other cases

Criminal charges against owners are rare in bus accidents, though not unprecedented.

After the Hurricane Rita bus disaster near Dallas killed 23 passengers in 2005, prosecutors tried owner Jim Maples on charges that could have put him in prison for seven years. He was convicted of lesser charges, including failure to maintain his buses, and sentenced to six months of home incarceration and six months in a halfway house.

A Dallas lawyer who served as the chief counsel for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in Washington said Monday that federal prosecutors have also brought charges in the past, usually through the Office of Inspector General for the agency.

Last month, a California trucking company safety director and four drivers were sentenced to home incarceration and probation for falsifying drivers' logs, which drivers are required to keep to ensure they take adequate rests.

Charges in the Sherman bus crash would likely come only if investigators find that Mr. De La Torre or his employees falsified safety records or other documents, said Brigham McCown, who was FMCSA general counsel until 2006.

"Most criminal prosecutions occur when a person subject to USDOT regulations has intentionally provided false or fraudulent records or statements to the agency," Mr. McCown said. "Examples would be driver records, maintenance records, application forms, and in [some circumstances] statements to inspectors and investigators."

Congress

Mr. McCown said efforts to pass stricter rules for bus companies have for the most part failed in Congress in recent years - often because of opposition from lawmakers whose states are home to influential trucking or moving companies.

Two U.S. senators said Monday that they hope that changes this year. Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, issued a joint statement vowing to fight again for a bill Ms. Hutchison began pushing after the 2005 crash.

"Such tragedies are becoming all too common, and many of these deadly accidents are preventable," said Ms. Hutchison, who is the top Republican on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. "I urge Congress to make this a priority after the August recess so the roads will be safer for everyone."

A Senate hearing on bus safety is set for Sept. 18.

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