TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Two state troopers who led a caravan of luxury cars at speeds topping 100 mph in March were charged Friday with records-tampering after an investigation found they taped up their plates to conceal their involvement in the improper escort, which jeopardized public safety and undermined trust in the state police, the attorney general said.
"No one is above the law," Attorney General Jeff Chiesa said, adding that the unauthorized escort had "turned our highway into a virtual speedway, placing countless motorists at risk."
"We will not tolerate officers who endanger the public they are sworn to protect," Chiesa said.
Administrative charges also were brought against four other members of the state police in connection with a high-speed escort in 2010 and a fifth trooper for his handling of a ticket issued to the operator of a Lamborghini clocked at 116 mph, also in 2010.
Sgt. 1st Class Nadir Nassry and Trooper Joseph Ventrella sought to conceal their involvement in the March escort by using black electrical tape to alter their plates, the attorney general said.
Nassry also is accused of instructing other drivers in the caravan of high-performance vehicles to conceal or partly conceal their plates using tape or other means.
By hiding their plate numbers, the drivers were able to speed through tolls on the Garden State Parkway without paying, the attorney general said, creating what he described as a "mirage."
Chiesa said the taping of the troop cars showed "they intended to conceal their involvement in conduct that they knew was wrong."
The attorney general said the time limit had expired to issue any tickets to the motorists involved in any of the high-speed caravans. He added that he did not anticipate any of the drivers would be charged in the ongoing investigation.
New escort procedures are now in place, including "clear instructions on observing posted speed limits," Chiesa said.
Nassry, an assistant station commander and 25-year-veteran, on Thursday took full responsibility for the escort and submitted his retirement papers. He asked for leniency for Ventrella, whom he said was simply following orders and has been on the force only six years.
Nassry and Ventrella's attorneys both denied their clients engaged in any criminal wrongdoing. Ventrella's attorney, Vincent K. Nuzzi, said his client never taped his license plate, and only participated in the caravan on his supervisor's orders.
"He's the lowest guy in the chain of command, given a direct order to do this stuff, and given that direct order by somebody authorized to give him the order," Nuzzi said of Ventrella.
Both Nassry and Ventrella were charged with fourth-degree falsifying or tampering with records. Nassry also faces a second charge of third-degree tampering with public records.
Nassry had agreed to participate in the escort because of his friendship with Brandon Jacobs, a former member of the New York Giants, now with the San Francisco 49ers, who was part of the caravan, Nassry's attorney, Charles Sciarra, said Thursday.
Witnesses who emailed the state Turnpike Authority reported seeing the caravan, escorted by two state police vehicles, traveling down the parkway at speeds over 100 mph, weaving in traffic and forcing some motorists to speed up to get out of the way. Its participants included members of a New York driving club.
Nassry, 47, and Ventrella, 28, were suspended in April.
State Police Superintendent Col. Rick Fuentes announced Friday that new guidelines on state police escorts cover authorization and review procedures, and rules of conduct, including observing posted speed limits and avoiding passing lanes.
Fuentes and Chiesa referred Friday to the 2012 escort as 'unauthorized,' but state police have refused previous requests from news organizations to provide a copy of their prior policy on escorts, and did not make a copy of the new policy available.
In the administrative charges announced Friday, two state troopers were charged with unsafe driving and improperly conducting an escort, and two supervisors were charged for improper supervision relating to a similar 2010 high-speed escort of luxury cars. One trooper was charged administratively with improperly handling a speeding ticket during the incident. Fuentes said all five troopers, who were not named as they are subject to an internal agency hearing process, are likely to face unpaid suspensions.
The investigation into the escorts also led to a major shake-up of state police brass, with the reassignment of 10 state police commanders.
Both Chiesa and Fuentes emphasized that the state police regularly conducts lawful escorts for legitimate reasons and insisted the two incidents were isolated.
"This is a public safety issue, plain and simple," Chiesa said. "Thankfully, thankfully nobody was hurt."
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