NYC School Bus Inspectors Charged with Extortion, Bribe-Taking

Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union in Queens, N.Y. long had operated as a subsidiary of the Genovese crime family before its leaders were taken down on racketeering charges by federal prosecutors a couple of years ago. Local President Salvatore Battaglia, Secretary-Treasurer Julius Bernstein, and benefits manager Ann Chiarovano either had been convicted by a jury or entered a guilty plea. One-time acting Genovese boss Matty “the Horse” Ianniello also went down. Late in 2006 ATU International President Warren George placed the local under temporary trusteeship. Yet there was some unfinished business. On May 13, four New York City school bus inspectors and supervisors – Neil Cremin, George Ortiz (retired), Milton Smith, and Ira Sokol – were arraigned in Manhattan federal court following the unsealing of indictments against them for acts of extortion, bribery and bribe-taking going back to the mid Nineties and totaling at least $1 million. Cremin and Sokol served as supervisors with the New York City Department of Education’s Office of Pupil Transportation; Smith was employed as an inspector; and Ortiz was a retired supervisor. Each of the defendants have pleaded not guilty.


The indictments represent another episode in the undermining of the reputation of the 15,000-member union, which represents drivers, mechanics and escorts for school bus companies in New York City. Last September an independent counsel, acting at the request of dissident union members, released a report accusing local and national ATU leaders of knowing about, and profiting from, acts of corruption. The latest indictments have their origin in a federally-subsidized transportation program for special-education students. Cremin, Ortiz, Smith and Sokol allegedly used their positions to demand cash payments from participating bus operators in exchange for granting them more lucrative routes. “The amount of cash payments…ranged from hundreds of dollars per year from certain bus company owners, up to tens of thousands of dollars per year from [others],” noted the indictment released by U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia in Manhattan. In addition, the defendants knowingly overlooked vehicle safety violations. Moreover, the men designated certain bus routes as “extended” – that is, starting or finishing outside contracted times – order to provide bus operators with extra money while receiving a portion in the form of kickbacks.    

The accused insist they are innocent of all charges. “He looks forward to addressing the charges against him,” said lawyer Carrie Tendler of her client, Milton Smith. But the indictments are the result of a lengthy joint investigation by the FBI and the U.S. Labor Department’s Office of Labor-Management Standards and Office of Inspector General. The defense attorneys are going to have work overtime to convince a jury that their clients had been unaware for a dozen years that about $1 million had disappeared from under their noses. (New York Post, 5/14/08; OLMS, 6/3/08).