MTA’s $100K Toll Scofflaw Is Merely The Tip Of The License Plate Obstructing Iceberg

An illegal license plate cover on the back plate of an MTA employee who avoided paying tolls for years. Photo: MTA Inspector General's Office
An illegal license plate cover on the back plate of an MTA employee who avoided paying tolls for years. Photo: MTA Inspector General's Office

A covered up plate was one MTA employee’s license to steal.

An MTA bus division maintenance superintendent skipped out on paying $104,270 in tolls and fines in a brazen, years-long toll cheating effort that involved the use of a plastic cover that obstructed his license plate and swapping out plates to throw the DMV off his trail, a report from the MTA Inspector General revealed on Monday. And the scheme might have continued indefinitely except the toll scofflaw was overheard at work bragging about using the license plate cover to avoid paying the tolls, according to Carolyn Pokorny’s report.

The MTA IG’s office said it would not release the employee’s name, but the Post and the News identified him as Aditya “Buddy” Samaroo, 44, who earned $135,382 in 2020 before his demotion.

The MTA employee’s toll-avoidance corruption involved tolls controlled by by the Port Authority, New York State Thruway Authority and the MTA and took place between February 2011 and September 2020. Acting on a tip, investigators found the maintenance supervisor’s car did indeed lack a front license plate, and the rear plate was covered with “a dirty, semi-clear plastic covering,” the report said.

Investigators were then able to use security cameras at MTA crossings to spot the employee avoiding a toll 11 times in a six-month period between January and July 2020, as Samaroo drove from the northern suburbs to his East New York depot every day.

If a vehicle doesn’t have an EZ Pass, tolls can be assigned to the license plate associated with a registered vehicle, whose owner is then sent a bill. Although the DMV can revoke the registration of a vehicle that has skipped out on enough tolls, the employee swapped out his license plates a number of times. First, after his car was impounded for toll evasion in 2018, and then two more times in 2020.

According to the IG report, toll cheats can avoid getting their registrations revoked because “unpaid tolls and fees remain with the surrendered plates and not the registered vehicle or owner,” which means that a vehicle is no longer subject to a registration revocation once it has new license plates.

When confronted by investigators, the employee claimed that he did not have a front plate because of damage from a December 2019 car crash, but that explanation did not hold up — not only did a body shop provide damning testimony, but the employee had clearly already been avoiding EZ Pass tolls, as shown by the fact that he owed $40,000 when his car was impounded in 2018.

It’s not as if this MTA worker is the first person in New York to use a license plate cover to avoid tolls. Police officers are well-known practitioners of using them, with one Inside Edition report from 2019 finding more than 100 cars with police placards and license plates covers around the city. MTA employees have been caught using the covers on their personal vehicles and on MTA work vehicles.

Sometimes, all it takes is some PPE:

In addition to the license plate cover schemes that drivers attempt, the pandemic has birthed a new form of toll and traffic camera fraud through the use of fake temporary license plates. Over the summer, the New York City Sheriff’s Office seized more than 100 vehicles that had the fake paper license plates attached to them.

MTA spokesperon Michael Cortez said that the toll cheating as described in the IG report is “reprehensible conduct” and “an alleged violation of public trust that has no place at the MTA.”

After being alerted to the fraud, the MTA suspended the employee without pay, and after arbitration, the employee was demoted, handed a 12-week suspension without pay that was worth over $30,000 and had to pay the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority $10,373.50 — the portion that he owed the agency. The IG has referred the case to other agencies, which may seek restitution.

The MTA also pointed to what it called aggressive efforts to deal with license plate fraud to avoid paying tolls, pointing to a recent bust of three motorists using fake temporary license plates as they crossed the Triborough Bridge, now technically named after Robert F. Kennedy.

License plate obstruction is enough of an issue that then-pre-disgrace Gov. Cuomo sought in 2020 to add language to the state budget that would raise the penalty for license plate defacement or obstruction to a “theft of services” misdemeanor. Although that push failed, legislators passed a bill during the 2021 session that makes the maximum penalty for license plate obstruction a $300 fine. The bill, which passed unanimously in the Assembly and with one “No” vote in the state Senate, has yet to be signed by either Cuomo or Gov. Hochul. A spokesperson for Hochul said that the governor would “review legislation that strengthens protections against these types of violations.”

Congestion pricing will use the same type of EZ Pass-based payment system used at other cashless crossings across the city and state, making it imperative for the state to figure out how to cut down on people who use defaced or obscured license plates to avoid electronic tolls. According to a FOIL request by journalist Steven Bodzin, TBTA Police and New York State Police gave out 7,572 summonses for having defaced, damaged or unreadable license plates around MTA bridges and tunnels in the year 2018. Additionally, the agency said that from March 1, 2018 to September 30, 2018 there were 9,286,640 license plate toll transactions. Out of that total, cameras failed to toll 101,349 license plates because they were unintentionally obscured (1.09 percent of the total) and 17,115 license plates that were unreadable because they intentionally obstructed (0.18 percent of the total).

The DMV did not respond to a question on how the agency would fix the issue of being able to swap out license plates in order to get out from massive amounts of unpaid tolls.

“We are also forwarding this matter to the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles for any action as it may deem appropriate,” the MTA IG report stated.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

The Complete Guide to the Final Move NY Plan

|
After years of fine-tuning, the Move NY coalition has released the final details of its plan to reduce congestion and fund transit by reforming New York City’s dysfunctional toll system [PDF]. We’ll have a full report from the launch event later today. In the meantime, here’s a breakdown of the proposal in all its detail. […]