Five truckers' guilty pleas end major federal inquiry

Five truckers pleaded guilty Wednesday to falsifying their drivers logs, bringing to an end a major federal investigation of the practice in the commercial-trucking industry.

The deal between prosecutors and the five defendants came on the day their trial was to begin. Each of the defendants faces up to five years in prison and a possible $250,000 fine. They will be sentenced Dec. 18.

In all, six companies and more than two dozen defendants faced criminal charges in U.S. District Court in Fresno as a result of the investigation, which was known as "Operation Safe Roads."

The investigation began in 2003 but intensified after a fatal accident in September of that year that decapitated a man and his son on an Arizona highway.

In that accident, a Fresno-area driver allegedly fell asleep at the wheel.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Marlon Cobar said in an interview that automobile drivers have a lot to think about when they are on the road.

"One thing that shouldn't go through their mind: 'Is the [truck] driver behind me so fatigued from driving over the limit that he will cause an accident?'" he said.

Trucking operations come under the scrutiny of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, whose regulations include limitations on the number of daily driving hours and the required hours off duty.

Truckers currently can drive up to 11 hours without a break and are required to take at least 10 hours off between shifts. The maximum workday is 14 hours.

On Wednesday, Tarsem Singh Pahal, 44, of Yuba City; Daljit Singh, 34, of Suisun City; Jaspreet Singh, 25 or 26, of Sacramento; Bhinder Singh Raju, 47, of Modesto; and Willie Burton Evans, 46, of Nogales, Ariz., entered guilty pleas to falsifying driver logs and aiding and abetting before U.S. District Judge Anthony W. Ishii.

Pahal, for instance, listed on his July 12, 2003 drivers log that he traveled between Castaic in Southern California and Turlock, when in reality, federal officials said, he was at a truck-weighing facility in Coachella, near Indio off of Interstate 10, during that time.

The five who pleaded Wednesday worked for Madera-based Nijjar Brothers Trucking Inc. and/or its sister company, NB Trucking Inc. Both companies recently pleaded guilty, and as part of the plea, both will cease to exist, prosecutors said.

"It was the death penalty for companies," Cobar said.

In addition, Nijjar Brothers President Surrinder Singh Nijjar and Amritpal Singh, a company principal, along with Sukhwinder Singh, its safety director, also recently pleaded guilty.

Nijjar Brothers — which Cobar called "by far the worst as far as safety compliance" — as well as NB Trucking were the last of the companies caught in the federal investigation to plead guilty.

Fresno attorney Richard Berman, who represented Jaspreet Singh, said the four men of Indian descent who pleaded guilty Wednesday were legal immigrants seeking to become citizens and fell prey to Nijjar Brothers' pressure to work more hours than allowed by law. He also said because the two trucking companies they worked for took so long to reach a deal with federal prosecutors, the drivers were treated differently by the government than those who worked for companies that reached early deals.

"I think it's grossly unfair," Berman said.

Cobar disagreed with that assessment. He also said jobs are so plentiful in the trucking industry that if a driver is pressured to work excessive hours, that driver can quit and easily find a new job.

The original indictments in the investigation were unsealed in December 2004. At that time, one company — Ore-Cal Livestock Inc. — had already pleaded guilty to criminal felony charges and agreed to pay more than $1 million in fines and penalties. Other companies and their drivers followed. Every company and driver charged ended up pleading guilty, Cobar said. None went to trial.