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The state attorney general today accused a McKeesport school-van operator of using drivers with criminal records and using vehicles that were not properly inspected or insured.
Martin W. Betchy, 35, and his company, Three Rivers Transit LLC, are charged with insurance fraud, theft by deception, criminal attempt to commit theft by deception, criminal use of a communication facility, deceptive or fraudulent business practices, endangering the welfare of children and unlawful use of a computer and other computer crimes.
In one case, the AG's office claims, one of Three Rivers Transit's drivers was taking four students to a school for special-needs children, but had never passed a driver's test or obtained a license.
Another driver worked for Three Rivers Transit for more than a year while her license was suspended for drunken-driving, the attorney general claims, and one of the vans used for school transports didn't have a first-aid kit or other required safety equipment.
Students were transported by Three Rivers Transit under a contract with Propel Schools, a non-profit which operates charter schools serving students in kindergarten through grade 12 throughout the Mon Valley, including McKeesport, Braddock Hills, Pitcairn, Hazelwood, Homestead and Turtle Creek, as well as on Pittsburgh's North Side and in the Montour School District.
"The conduct of this individual (Betchy) put many innocent children at risk," State Attorney General Bruce Beemer said. "There are safeguards in place to ensure that the people trusted with transporting school students are qualified and suitable drivers. Those necessary protections were ignored time after time as this individual acted with disregard for the law and the safety of these children."
The charges were filed with Magisterial District Judge Eugene Riazzi Jr. in McKeesport. Betchy has not yet been arraigned.
Kelly Wall, senior director of strategic communications and engagement for Propel Schools, told Tube City Almanac on Wednesday that Propel "has terminated the contract with Three Rivers Transit LLC and has taken immediate action to provide the safe transportation of students."
"The number of students impacted is limited --- 55 out of 3,700 students," she said. "Temporary alternate transportation for those students is in place at this time. As of Jan. 4, 2017, new transportation arrangements will be in place for these students."
A review of Allegheny County court dockets for the last four years revealed that Betchy, formerly of Clairton, has a long string of traffic and motor-vehicle violations.
Court records indicate that Betchy pleaded guilty in 2012 to charges filed by Braddock Hills police that he had violated the state's licensing requirements for school bus drivers and in 2013 that one of his vehicles was showing the wrong license plate; in 2012 to charges filed by Pittsburgh police that he was driving an unregistered vehicle; and at least twice in 2015 to charges by Pennsylvania State Police that he was driving vehicles that did not meet safety requirements.
Wall, the Propel spokeswoman, declined comment on whether the charter school was aware of Betchy's past guilty pleas to traffic and safety violations.
"Propel Schools is not the focus of the investigation and cannot comment further due to the ongoing legal process," she said.
According to a criminal complaint filed in Riazzi's office, in addition to transporting students to Propel, Three Rivers Transit also took students with special needs to locations such as Pressley Ridge School on Pittsburgh's North Side and Pace School in Churchill.
Betchy and Three Rivers Transit began providing transporation for Propel Schools in January 2012, Beemer said. He was paid approximately $2.4 million for services he provided over a four-year period, Beemer said.
An attempt by Tube City Almanac to find a valid phone number for Betchy was unsuccessful.
Beemer said the charges against Betchy are the result of an investigation conducted by the Office of Attorney General's Insurance Fraud Section.
The criminal complaint states that Betchy was required under the terms of his contract with Propel Schools to have drivers who had completed Pennsylvania criminal background checks --- so-called Act 34 and Act 151 clearances --- using vehicles that were properly inspected and insured.
The attorney general's office obtained emails and contracts between Propel and Three Rivers Transit in which Betchy repeatedly claimed that he had all of the proper paperwork, according to the complaint.
But, Beemer said, Betchy "failed to perform child abuse clearances and background checks."
According to the criminal complaint, of 10 drivers employed by Three Rivers Transit, three didn't have valid driver's licenses and three are currently on probation.
The criminal complaint says that insurance investigators began looking into Betchy's business after several drivers for Three Rivers Transit were involved in accidents.
Those drivers either did not have valid car insurance or had policies that only covered personal use, the complaint states.
The most serious accident happened Jan. 13, 2015, according to Beemer. One of Betchy's drivers was driving a 9-year-old male student home from school when that driver rear-ended another car on the Parkway East, near the Allegheny County Jail. The car that was struck then rear-ended a third vehicle.
The child in the school van suffered a concussion and was taken to Children's Hospital of UPMC, while a driver and passenger in one of the other vehicles were taken to Allegheny General Hospital with a concussion and whiplash.
But the vehicle was registered to Betchy, not to the company, and it didn't carry commercial vehicle insurance, so Betchy's insurance company refused to pay the claim. The insurance companies for the other drivers then demanded payment from Betchy's transit driver, who filed for bankruptcy, according to the criminal complaint.
Betchy told investigators that he paid the drivers as "independent contractors," in cash, twice a month, the affidavit said.
But according to the criminal complaint, Betchy supplied each of the drivers with a vehicle that he owned, and which bore stickers saying "Three Rivers Transit" and "School Students" on the windows.
On Nov. 3, state investigators served Betchy with a search warrant and confiscated the business's records, but they say Betchy continued to operate as usual --- less than a month later, on Dec. 1, a state investigator spotted one of Betchy's vans in downtown Pittsburgh, labeled "School Students" and carrying a child in the back seat.
The investigation is ongoing, Beemer said, and is being prosecuted by Senior Deputy Attorney General Kara Cotter.
Originally published December 21, 2016.