Washington Post By Del Quentin Wilber, Staff Writer, Saturday, October 3, 2009
The three men were not afraid to throw serious cash around to get taxicab licenses, authorities say.
They gave a District official an envelope stuffed with $14,000. They passed along $60,000 in a shopping bag. At one point, one of the men dropped a $3,000 bribe, tucked inside a folded newspaper, into the official’s car, federal law enforcement officials say.
Authorities say the bribes, doled out from September 2007 through June 2008, totaled more than $220,000. But the influence seekers ran into a major problem Friday: They were indicted on bribery charges. It turns out the government official wasn’t keeping the cash. He was working for the feds.
In two indictments made public Friday, federal prosecutors accused Yitbarek Syume, 51, of Silver Spring; Berhane Leghese, 47, of Arlington County; and Amanuel Ghirmazion, 53, of Hyattsville of operating an audacious bribery scheme that sought to profit from changes in D.C. taxi laws. If convicted of bribery and aiding and abetting, each man faces up to five years in prison.
In a separate indictment, authorities alleged that Syume and 36 cabdrivers participated in a second scheme that provided the District official with more than $100,000 in payoffs in a single month in exchange for taxi licenses. Authorities said they arrested 26 people in raids Friday and were seeking others.
Channing Phillips, the acting United States attorney for the District, declined to comment. In a media statement, he said the charges reflected “corrupt activities at the heart of our taxicab industry.”
Law enforcement sources said they were first alerted to the activities in 2007 when Leon Swain, the chairman of the D.C. Taxi Commission, reported a bribery attempt to authorities. Swain is not identified by name in court papers but assisted authorities in a two-year investigation that included wiretaps and recorded meetings with suspects.
He was working undercover as recently as last month, according to law enforcement sources who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss ongoing investigations.
Peter Nickles, the District’s attorney general, called Swain a hero.
“He is a standup guy,” Nickles said.
The indictments unsealed Friday describe a scheme to obtain licenses for taxicabs and cab companies.
In 2007, the D.C. government ended the city’s system of calculating fares by zone and adopted one that uses electronic meters. The indictment says that many in the industry believed the new system would lead to more regulation, “including stringent limitations on the total number of taxicabs licensed to do business.” By July of last year, the District enacted a moratorium on the issuance of licenses to operate multi-cab taxi companies.
In apparent anticipation of the moratorium, Syume, Leghese and Ghirmazion conspired to bribe Swain to obtain “numerous” cab company licenses, the indictment says. The men were hoping to sell some of the licenses and hold onto others, which they believed would become more valuable, the indictment alleges.
The indictment alleges that Ghirmazion’s job was to raise money for the payoffs; Leghese prepared documents to obtain the licenses; and Syume arranged for the payments.
The bribes were large and began Sept. 5, 2007, when Syume gave Swain an envelope filled with $14,000 in cash, the indictment alleges. The next day, he gave Swain $8,000. In January 2008, he gave Swain $99,000, the indictment says.
In exchange, Swain gave the men licenses.
The investigation became public last week and turned to city hall. A senior aide to a D.C. council member was arrested on bribery charges. Ted G. Loza, chief of staff to Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), has pleaded not guilty and is free on personal recognizance.
In court papers, federal authorities accused Loza of taking $1,500 in cash, free trips and limousine rides from Abdulaziz Kamus, an advocate of the Ethiopian taxi community, in exchange for trying to influence taxi legislation.
Kamus was working as an informant for authorities, according to sources. He became known to federal agents when Swain reported that Kamus had tried to bribe him, the sources have said.
Kamus apparently flipped after being approached by federal agents. He has declined to comment. His attorney, Shawn Moore, also declined to comment.
Graham has said he did nothing wrong. Law enforcement sources say that Graham is not a target of an investigation but that they are investigating his ties to the taxi industry.
It is not clear whether other city employees face charges. But FBI agents raided the home of a former official, Causton Toney, Friday morning, according to a law enforcement source familiar with the investigation and a source in city government. Toney, who is not charged with any crime, is a former chairman of the D.C. Taxi Commission. He did not return a phone message seeking comment.
Staff writer Tim Craig contributed to this report.