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Suit Set on MTA's Screening of Drivers

Safety: Lawyers for a teenage boy molested by a convicted felon hired by the agency allege that criminal background checks are inadequate.


Lawyers for a 16-year-old boy molested by an MTA bus driver who was a convicted felon plan to file a civil lawsuit today claiming that the transit agency fails to adequately screen its drivers for criminal backgrounds.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority driver Anthony Zaragoza pleaded guilty in February to molesting the boy aboard his bus and to previous assaults on two other children.

Zaragoza, a father of three who worked for the transit agency despite having been convicted in 1980 of armed robbery, was sentenced to nearly 30 years in prison.

The driver's guilty plea came after a video of the June 20, 2001, attack was played during a preliminary hearing. The 140-pound victim, a North Carolina resident, had surreptitiously turned on a video camera he was carrying as Zaragoza, a 325-pound man, began making sexual advances.

Alone with the boy on a Hollywood side street, Zaragoza is heard saying, "I could pin you to the floor and take your pants off without you stopping me." The driver then fondled the boy before letting him off the bus.

MTA officials, who were not aware of the pending legal filing when reached for comment Tuesday, insist that they screen all job applicants and do all they can to closely supervise their work force, with an eye on safety for riders. They said a lawsuit would be baseless.

A lawyer for the boy said the fact that Zaragoza worked for the MTA suggests that the agency does not adequately check for criminal backgrounds. "This case shows once again that they have a completely inadequate record-keeping system," said attorney David Ring. "They seem to have no idea how many drivers have had felony convictions.... It's a danger to the public." Ring said that at the very least, the agency should have supervised Zaragoza better.

In June, the MTA settled a similar case, paying $1.95 million to a woman raped by an MTA driver aboard a bus in El Monte. In that incident, driver Leonard Howell worked for the MTA despite having a felony rape conviction.

Zaragoza and Howell are among four MTA bus drivers charged with sex crimes involving passengers over the last four years. The agency employs about 4,200 drivers and operates a fleet of about 2,100 buses throughout the county.

Zaragoza was hired in 1989 by the Southern California Rapid Transit District, the MTA's predecessor. By then, he had had his felony reduced to a misdemeanor, taking advantage of a state law applying to felons who did not serve prison time, and then had his record expunged.

MTA officials have said they were aware of Zaragoza's background, but could not have legally kept him from working. The MTA's lead lawyer said Tuesday that the agency could not have known that Zaragoza would sexually attack a rider.

"There is a reasonable argument that the MTA is not responsible for something this aberrant," Steve Carnevale said. "If we hired him and he had a history of molesting kids, that's one thing. But we didn't know he had a propensity to do this stuff more than anyone else.... It's not the bus company's fault he decided to molest the kid."

MTA spokesman Marc Littman said the agency toughened its standards and background checks for hiring drivers in 1996. He said a person convicted of rape 20 years ago still could be hired as a driver, however, "if they have served their time and paid their debt to society."

Ring said the boy, who was visiting Los Angeles and touring Hollywood when he was molested, is struggling to come to terms with the attack. "He's trying to put it past him. He's a strong kid," Ring said. "But those were the worst 10 minutes of his life."

The boy's family is seeking unspecified monetary damages for emotional and physical distress.

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