A prominent Chinatown restaurant owner and his son were accused by prosecutors Tuesday of passing a bribe to the head of the D.C. Taxicab Commission in a scheme to circumvent the city’s moratorium on new cab companies.
Tony Cheng and his son arranged from November 2010 through June 2011 to make payments and give a cut of profits to the then-chairman of the D.C. Taxicab Commission in exchange for backdating paperwork in order to start two cab companies, according to an indictment filed in U.S. District Court for the District.
The public official who suggested that paperwork could be forged “for a contribution” is not named in court records, but the chairman of the commission at the time was Leon Swain — who in 2009 it was revealed had worked undercover to expose a large-scale bribery scheme within the city’s taxicab industry.
A lawyer for the Chengs — identified in court papers as Anthony C.Y. Cheng Sr. and Anthony R. Cheng Jr. — dismissed the charges, saying prosecutors are seeking leverage to extract information from the Chengs about an ongoing federal investigations.
Noting that the elder Mr. Cheng has held fundraisers for a number of politicians, including at his Chinatown restaurant — Tony Cheng’s Mongolian Restaurant — Mr. Robinson said prosecutors thought the pair could offer insight on current investigations into campaign finance probes.
“Neither of them thought they could do that,” he said, adding that the father and son had no knowledge of any illicit activity with which to bargain.
U.S. attorney’s office spokesman William Miller declined to comment on the timing of the charges being brought or whether they had anything to do with other investigations.
Court documents state that through several meetings the Chengs arranged to have backdated paperwork filed with the taxicab commission so they could skirt a moratorium that since 2008 had prevented new taxicab businesses from opening in the District. They agreed to pay the commission chairman 10 percent of profits from two taxicab businesses in exchange for help obtaining licenses for the companies.
During a Jan. 25, 2011, meeting at Mr. Cheng’s Chinatown restaurant, prosecutors said Mr. Cheng paid the chairman $1,500 for help getting two backdated licenses. The chairman then directed the Chengs to pay $500 to an undercover agent who was posing as an employee of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs who had authority to issue certificates of occupancy. The chairman offered to pay half the amount and the younger Mr. Cheng paid the agent $250 during a meeting in March.
The elder Mr. Cheng, 65, and the younger Mr. Cheng, 39, are charged with one count of conspiracy to commit bribery of a public official — an offense punishable by five years in prison — and the younger Mr. Cheng is charged with payment of a bribe. He faces an additional 10 years in prison for the second charge if convicted.
“We’re very confidant that they did not participate in bribery,” Mr. Robinson said, declining to elaborate on the payments prosecutors said were made.
Mr. Swain, a former police officer who headed the taxicab commission from 2007 to April 2011, could not be reached Tuesday to confirm his role in the investigation, though it’s been widely reported that he cooperated previously in a major bribery investigation.
In 2009, an investigation in which Mr. Swain played a starring role ensnared 39 taxicab drivers and the former chief of staff for a D.C. Council member on bribery charges. He was fired from his position in April 2011 and mounted an unsuccessful bid for an at-large D.C. Council seat last year.
Mr. Miller said prosecutors do not plan to charge anyone else in the Chengs’ case.