Bus company owner pleads not guilty in fatal bus fire case

| Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The owner of the bus company whose bus caught fire and killed 23 elderly people during Hurricane Rita evacuation efforts pleaded not guilty on behalf of himself and his company to a three-count federal indictment.

Global Limo Inc. of Pharr, Texas, and its owner, James H. Maples, 65, were indicted on charges of conspiring with others to falsify driver time records and with willfully failing to inspect their buses to ensure safe operation, according to a U.S. Department of Justice press release.

A Houston grand jury returned the sealed indictments Jan. 30. They were unsealed following the arrest of Maples Feb. 1. Maples, who was released on a $75,000 bond, pleaded not guilty on behalf of himself and the company Monday, Feb. 6.

If convicted on all counts, Maples faces up to seven years in federal prison and $450,000 in fines. The company could face fines totaling $900,000.

The first indictment alleges Maples and Global Limo conspired with others to falsify driver time records to circumvent federal regulations mandating minimum eight-hour rest periods.

The indictment alleges that beginning in May 2005, to on or about July 9, 2005, Maples and Global Limo routinely assigned two drivers to one bus with no sleeper berth for long cross-country trips. When not driving, the co-driver traveled in one of the passenger seats and falsely logged the time as “off-duty,” instead of the appropriate “on-duty not driving.”

The alleged false claims of “off-duty” status created the appearance that the drivers were obtaining the minimum rest of eight consecutive hours after 15 hours of on-duty time.

Instead, according to a press release announcing the indictments, the drivers were allegedly driving long stretches of time without appropriate rest in an effort to comply with the travel schedules required by Maples and Global Limo. Maples and Global Limo are accused of then obtaining false statements and maintaining them in Global Limo records for, among other things, FMCSA inspection.

If convicted, Maples faces a maximum punishment of five years in federal prison without parole, and a $250,000 fine. Global Limo faces a maximum $500,000 fine if convicted.

Maples and Global Limo are charged in Count 2 with knowingly and willfully failing to inspect and maintain Global Limo buses to ensure safe and proper operating conditions at all times, from as early as May 6, 2005, and continuing to at least Aug. 24, 2005.

If convicted of this offense, Maples faces a maximum penalty of one year in federal prison, without parole, and a $100,000 fine. If convicted, Global Limo faces a maximum $200,000 fine.

Count 3 charges Maples and Global Limo with knowingly and willfully failing to require Global Limo bus drivers to complete driver vehicle inspection reports at the end of the work day, from no later than May 6, 2005, until at least Aug. 24, 2005.

If convicted of this offense, Maples faces a maximum penalty of one year in federal prison, without parole, and a $100,000 fine. If convicted, Global Limo faces a maximum $200,000 fine.

The bus caught fire Sept. 23, 2005, on Interstate 45 near Dallas while carrying evacuees from a Houston nursing home. The driver and some passengers escaped, but others were caught inside as patients’ oxygen tanks exploded.

The fire accounted for almost one-fourth of the approximately 100 deaths linked to Hurricane Rita.

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