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D.C. taxi probe yields more arrests

- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 3, 2009

Federal law-enforcement authorities Friday unsealed indictments against 39 D.C. taxicab drivers, charging them with conspiring to bribe the head of the city's taxicab commission in a widening criminal investigation into the industry.

The indictments come just over a week after the chief of staff for D.C. Council member Jim Graham was charged with accepting bribes from a person with a financial stake in the taxicab industry to promote favorable taxicab legislation.

Mr. Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, is chairman of the D.C. Council Committee on Public Works and Transportation, which has oversight of the city's taxicab industry.

The indictments unsealed Friday charge that the men attempted to bribe Taxicab Commission Chairman Leon J. Swain Jr., who is identified by title but not by name in the court papers. Federal officials said Mr. Swain worked with investigators in an undercover capacity.

The eight-member taxicab commission, which Mr. Swain has headed since July 2007, is responsible for establishing criteria, standards and requirements for licensing taxicab drivers and for licensing cab owners and companies.

The indictment charges Yitbarek Syume, 51, of Silver Spring; Berhane Leghese, 47, of Arlington; and Amanuel Ghirmazion, 53, of Hyattsville with giving Mr. Swain $220,000 in bribes in a two-year period from September 2007 to last month in exchange for licenses to operate multi-vehicle taxicab companies. The District imposed a moratorium on multi-vehicle taxicab company licenses in July 2008.

The other men are charged with paying a series of bribes totaling $110,000 between Sept. 3 and Sept. 28 to Mr. Swain to obtain individual taxicab driver's licenses.

If convicted, the men each face up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

Federal officials said 27 of the men had been arrested as of Friday and five search warrants had been executed.

According to the indictment, the men delivered cash to Mr. Swain in envelopes, left $3,000 bribes in folded newspapers in his car and presented him on one occasion with a shopping bag containing nearly $60,000 in cash.

"I don't regret a penny I spend [on the chairman]" said Mr. Syume, owner of cab consulting company United Fleet Management, according to the indictment. Mr. Syume is charged in both indictments. Information related to United Fleet Management was also sought in a search executed at the city hall office of Mr. Graham's chief of staff, Ted Loza, according to a copy of the search warrant.

Ben Friedman, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, declined to comment on the connection between the indictments announced Friday and the charges against Mr. Loza. Mr. Loza was charged with receiving bribes totaling $1,500 on two occasions.