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New York City Carriage Driver Accused In Horse Switch

FILE PHOTO -- A carriage horse trots near Central Park on April 21, 2014. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

FILE PHOTO — A carriage horse trots near Central Park on April 21, 2014. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

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NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) – A carriage driver has been accused of altering a hoof brand to make a 22-year-old draft horse with a breathing ailment appear to be a healthier horse nearly half its age.

Frank Luo branded the wrong hoof identification number on an aging horse named Ceasar, who was supposed to be resting on a Pennsylvania farm, so he could work under a license issued to a 12-year-old horse named Carsen, city health officials said in an administrative order last month.

The details of the case, obtained by The Associated Press through a Freedom of Information request, come as Mayor Bill de Blasio and animal-rights activists are pushing to ban the city’s carriage industry as inhumane to the horses.

Drivers have responded by saying they care for the horses like their own children.

In the written order, officials said a city vet noticed that the horse had Carsen’s ID number on its hoof, but its “physical characteristics and medical condition was that of the older horse.” Ceasar had a mild, chronic condition called “heaves,” which is similar to asthma, city officials said.

Luo told The Associated Press on Friday that the vet simply got it wrong.

“I did not switch the horses. It’s just very confusing because they look alike,” he said.

Initially, Luo submitted paperwork intended to prove that the horse really was Carsen, including a handwritten note from a Pennsylvania farmer who said Ceasar had been on his farm for months. The city asked for more proof, including a veterinarian’s evaluation.

Five days later, Luo’s lawyer informed the department that he couldn’t afford to have the horse sitting idle and had shipped him to Pennsylvania and sold him.

“It’s all settled now,” Luo said. He said he would continue to operate his business using other horses.

The sale effectively ended the investigation by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which monitors the horses’ health. But the Department of Consumer Affairs, which regulates the drivers, is still investigating.

Luo’s regulatory problems date to September, when he was cited for working at least two horses without active licenses. He also was accused of working Ceasar for nine days in July when the horse was supposedly in Pennsylvania. City regulations give the horses five weeks of pasture time each year.

Also in September, the Department of Consumer Affairs cited Luo for false advertising, overcharging customers and operating a carriage for more hours than allowed. Luo’s company, the Manhattan Carriage Co., agreed in January to pay a fine and restitution.

In an unrelated incident, a horse Luo was driving in September bolted on Eighth Avenue and hit a car. It suffered minor injuries.

Demos Demopoulos, secretary and treasurer of Teamsters Local 553, the union that represents Luo, said in a statement that the allegations were not representative of the industry.

“If the accusations are proved true, he should be punished to the full extent of the law,” he said.

Demopoulos told WCBS 880’s Alex Silverman he knows those trying to ban the horses are going to use the incident as ammo.

“But unfortunately, in any business, you sometimes have bad players,” he said.

A 2007 audit by the city comptroller noted that health certificates kept for carriage horses sometimes contained physical descriptions that changed from year to year, suggesting they weren’t the same animals.

In 2008, a stable owner pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct to resolve allegations that he tried to bribe a city investigator.

Carriage owners have denied any subterfuge and maintained that their animals are among the healthiest and most tightly regulated anywhere.

On Monday, a Manhattan Supreme Court judge ruled the NYPD must comply with a Freedom of Information request from an animal rights group to turn over any records related to horse carriage incidents.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund claimed that there is “clear evidence of ongoing violations, accidents and injuries” involving horse-drawn carriages, but that police refused to hand over public records of horse-drawn carriage incidents.

“The health and safety of carriage horses are seriously at risk, but this is also just about our right as citizens to get documents,” said attorney Christopher Wlach, representing the ALDF.

The main issue seemed to be the NYPD’s interpretation of the request.

“For instance, the NYPD was claiming that when we requested documents related to the health, safety and well-being of carriage horses, that documents involving a carriage horse getting hit by a car would not be included within the scope of the request. And the judge rightly called that a humorous distinction,” Wlach said.

The NYPD would not comment to CBS 2 on the ruling. The department has 45 days to reexamine its records and comply with the information request.

De Blasio is looking to ban horse-drawn carriages in the city and replace them with electric vintage-style vehicles dubbed “E-Carriages.”

The mayor wanted to ban the horses during his first week in office, but earlier this month he said he expects the City Council to ban the practice by year’s end.

Carriage operators have fought back by opening up their stables to anyone who wanted to check conditions firsthand.

The City Council has not yet introduced the legislation on the proposed ban.

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