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Illegal Bus Company Re-opens under New Names

Posted By admin On September 15, 2010 @ 7:36 pm In | Comments Disabled

Cayetano Martinez started Tierra Santa Tours in 2006 with a few buses to take passengers back and forth from Los Angeles to Zacatecas in central Mexico.

In the first year of operation, Martinez’s company racked up at least 11 safety violations from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. They included failure to test employees for drug use and failure to keep records of drivers’ hours and qualifications and vehicle inspections, among other items.

In 2007, the FMCSA ordered the company’s buses off the road until the problems were fixed. When Martinez still hadn’t done that nine months later, the agency pulled his federal authorization. His company was out of business and facing fines of $7,620.

But that didn’t stop Martinez. He simply re-registered his business under a new name and kept his buses on the road, records show.

He would do the same thing two more times before the FMCSA caught up with him – and that happened only after a devastating bus crash in Arizona earlier this year. And still there are indications that Martinez has not completely quit the business.

News21 reconstructed the history of Tierra Santa Tours and Martinez’s other companies through a notice of claim letter the FMCSA sent to Martinez; the agency’s databases for motor carrier registrations and violations; a Government Accountability Office report; police records; interviews; and visits to the sites of several of his companies.

After being shut down the first time in 2007, Martinez registered a new company with the FMCSA. This one was Cayetanos Bus Line Inc., with a location listed in Van Nuys, Calif., just outside of Los Angeles, and a mailing address and phone number in Las Vegas.

Six months later, in August 2008, the company lost its insurance and the FMCSA told it to stop transporting passengers.

Martinez registered in June 2008 under a different name: Azteca Bus Line. The company’s address was the same as that of Cayetanos Bus Line. Martinez also gave the FMCSA a phone number and mailing address in Phoenix for a consulting company by the name of East Valley Safety Associates. That company advertises itself as a consultant on motor carrier safety, helping bus companies register and fill out paperwork for the FMCSA.

By 2009, Azteca Bus Line, too, ran into trouble with federal agents. It was fined $2,130 for lack of insurance after one of its buses was checked at a roadside inspection in California. When the company didn’t pay, the FMCSA issued an out-of-service order, meaning the company no longer had government permission to operate.

Meanwhile, Martinez had begun operating another company – Tierra Santa Inc., a name close to that of his original company. The company’s address was the same as that Martinez had given for Cayetanos Bus Line Inc. and Azteca Bus Line: 14416 Victory Blvd. in Van Nuys, Calif.

In July 2009, one of Tierra Santa Inc.’s buses was involved in a minor accident on Interstate 10 in western Arizona. The company was cited because the driver did not speak English, according to the FMCSA violations database.

Tierra Santa Inc. was cited twice more. In August 2009, a driver was stopped in Texas and ticketed for operating illegally. And in September of that year, the company got another minor citation in New Mexico for lighting problems on a bus.

In December 2009, the FMCSA formally rejected Martinez’s application to operate Tierra Santa Inc. and told Martinez he was not authorized to transport passengers. The agency did nothing else to make sure that Martinez was no longer operating his buses.

A GAO report [1] on reincarnated carriers issued six months earlier included this reference: “The owner of a Los Angeles motor coach company registered a new carrier using the same Social Security number, business name, phone number, fax number and company officer as the old one.” The report also stated that an investigator had visited the carrier’s new business and found “several brochures and business cards for the old carrier were displayed on the store’s counter.”

The report refers to 20 companies suspected of reincarnation but does not name them. However, a congressional staff member provided the list of the reincarnated companies [2] to the Center for Public Integrity [3] and News21. It includes Martinez’s company, Azteca.

In July, the FMCSA received the GAO report and the names of five of the companies suspected of reincarnating, Azteca Bus Line was not one of the five because the FMCSA had already ordered it out of service.

That same month, however, the FMCSA began asking questions about Martinez’s connection to other companies. Martinez did not respond to investigators’ questions. His buses were still on the road.

Accident Near Phoenix

On March 5, a Tierra Santa Inc. bus set out from Jerez, Zacatecas, in central Mexico, headed for Los Angeles.

About 30 miles south of Phoenix, the bus rear-ended a pickup truck on Interstate 10, swerved across the highway and hit the dirt shoulder of the road. It tipped onto its side and slid 80 feet before rolling over and landing upright.

The tumble caved in the sides of the bus, flattened part of the roof and shattered the windows. Nine passengers were thrown from the bus. Six of them died. The highway became a triage area for the 14 surviving passengers and two drivers, with motorists stopping to help people whose injuries ranged from head traumas to spinal fractures and broken ribs.

The accident generated attention from CNN, USA Today and others when it was learned that the bus was operating illegally. A police report [4] indicated that the driver did not speak English, there was no record of driver hours in the previous seven days, the driver carried a fake insurance card and the vehicle had defective brakes.

This time, federal officials moved aggressively against Martinez. The U.S. Department of Transportation went to U.S. District Court in California asking for a court order to shut him down.

In a consent decree [5] Martinez signed in March of this year, he agreed that he would no longer operate his business without federal authority.

Martinez still owes $72,760 for a total of 78 violations accumulated over four years, according to federal documents [6]. FMCSA officials wouldn’t say whether they plan to take civil action to recoup the fines.

Spokeswoman DaRonda McDuffie did say, however, that while the FMCSA appreciated the GAO report on reincarnated carriers, the agency’s action “against Tierra Santa Inc., its owner and the four motor carrier companies allegedly used was a direct result of FMCSA’s thorough investigation and subsequent charges.”

New Business

Tierra Santa Inc. is no longer the name of the business that operates out of the company’s old headquarters in Van Nuys. A new sign above the door reads “Autobuses Jerezanos.” Jerezanos refers to a part of central Mexico where the buses travel.

Set among muffler and bail bond shops and Chinese restaurants, the business offers phone cards, money transfers and bus tickets to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras every Sunday.

Autobuses Jerezanos’ brochure advertises the same L.A.-to-Mexico route, uses the same bus stops and lists the same addresses as Martinez’s old Tierra Santa Inc. and Azteca companies. It also has a website [7] that lists a phone number for its company headquarters. The number is the same one that Martinez included in his FMCSA registration papers for Tierra Santa Tours.

Autobuses Jerezanos does not appear on the list of companies that have FMCSA permission to operate.

A man answering the phone told News21 that it was the correct number for Martinez but that he was out of town and unavailable to speak.

A woman working at the counter said she had worked for Tierra Santa for four years but that the companies are not the same.

“This is not the company Tierra Santa; it is another company,” said the clerk, who did not want her name used because she did not have permission from her employer to speak. “Tierra Santa had an accident and closed down; this is a new company.”

Numerous attempts to reach Martinez by phone, e-mail and mail were unsuccessful.

Still Operating?

After the Tierra Santa Inc. accident, Mario Garcia, the owner of East Valley Safety Associates, the company Martinez referenced in one of his applications to the FMCSA, said he received a subpoena for his records.

Garcia said he talked to investigators and told them that Martinez had three buses, one that was involved in the accident near Phoenix and two that were still operating.

“I told the FMCSA that the company is still operating,” he said. Investigators asked him if he could find the buses and take photos for them.

“My job isn’t to do their work,” he recalled responding.

The FMCSA provided a summary of actions taken against Garcia but did not agree to interviews about the case.

Garcia said he has never actually met Martinez but he did help Martinez apply to get his company registered with the FMCSA, just as he does for many other companies.

Garcia has hung a framed newspaper clipping from the Tierra Santa Inc. crash above his desk. He points to the clip and says he tells prospective owners: “You have two options: First, you can pay the insurance and everything. Second, you can do like this, like it shows in this newspaper.”

In the end, he said, the second option is much more expensive, but ultimately it’s the owner’s choice.

“I don’t want a company to carry passengers if it is unsafe,” Garcia said. If he discovers that a company is operating without insurance, he said he notifies the FMCSA himself.

The problem, he said, is that there are a lot of incentives for companies to skirt the rules. Paying insurance and maintaining vehicles to federal standards can average $150,000 a year for a small bus company, he said.

Garcia said Martinez did what many companies do to get registered: “He put down the down payment, paid three months and then canceled the insurance.” Why? “Because it’s a lot of money,” he said.

More than 20 companies, many with poor safety scores and unpaid fines, have used the East Valley Safety Associates address, phone number and e-mail to register for operating authority, according to FMCSA’s database of violations from 2007 to 2010.

One business, Almar Co, registered at the East Valley Safety Associate’s address, received three separate fines totaling more than $36,000 in 2008 and 2009 for violations that include operating illegally, allowing a driver to drive more than 10 hours at a time and driving without a valid commercial driver’s license. It was ordered out of service July 17, 2009.

In the same month, a new company, Almarco, popped up with the same address and phone number and filed for authority to operate a passenger bus. Almarco subsequently received three violations for brake issues and maintenance problems and was ordered out of service this past March.

Garcia said he knows some of the companies that come to him have spotty safety records. “I am like a doctor; the reason that companies come to me is because they need help,” he said.
When he knows that a company is operating illegally, he said he offers to share that information with the Department of Transportation.

A Bus to Mexico

Two buses pull up in front of Autobuses Jerezanos early on a Sunday morning in July. A half-a-dozen groggy passengers who have been waiting on the sidewalk grab suitcases and get ready to board.

The signs on the buses say “Holy Spirit Tours,” a company that is registered with the FMCSA but has been cited for drivers who have consistently failed to keep track of their hours and for buses with steering and brake problems. The FMSCA has given the company a deficient safety rating of 99.36 out of 100, with 100 being the least safe, although it has not been taken out of service.

Truck driver Rudy Garcia accompanies his elderly, wheelchair-bound father, who is heading for a small town in Zacatecas, Mexico. Garcia said he’s heard about Tierra Santa’s accident in Arizona, but it doesn’t worry him.

“My mother in-law travels on these things back and forth to Mexico four times a year; my dad does it twice a year,” he said. “I think everything is well maintained; they stay on top of their buses. They take all the safety precautions they can.”

Sept. 26, 2010

Article printed from News21 – National: https://national.news21.com

URL to article: https://national.news21.com/2010-2/reincarnated-bus-company-dodges-regulation-ntsb

URLs in this post:

[1] report: https://www.gao.gov/new.items/d09924.pdf

[2] list of the reincarnated companies: https://national.news21.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/Oversight_document4.pdf

[3] Center for Public Integrity: https://www.publicintegrity.org/

[4] police report: https://national.news21.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/oversight_policereport.pdf

[5] consent decree: https://national.news21.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/Oversight_document1.pdf

[6] federal documents: https://national.news21.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/Oversight_noticeofclaim.pdf

[7] website: https://www.autobusesjerezanos.com/

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