A prominent Chinatown restaurant owner and his son pleaded not guilty Monday to charges they tried to bribe a city official, and their lawyer suggested that even the prosecution’s evidence supports his theory that the case is politically motivated.
Anthony C.Y. Cheng Sr., owner of Tony Cheng’s Mongolian Restaurant, and his son, Anthony R. Cheng Jr., were arraigned in U.S. District Court for the District, after which defense attorney Kenneth M. Robinson spoke further about the charges the men face.
Mr. Robinson, who has asserted that the charges are an attempt to extract information about an ongoing federal campaign finance investigation, said audio and video recordings of discussions between the Chengs and undercover agents back him up.
A public official who went unnamed in court documents but was identified by Mr. Robinson as former D.C. Taxicab Commission Chairman Leon Swain was working as a cooperator when he probed the father and son about taxicab business dealings. Mr. Robinson said Mr. Swain can be heard on the tapes asking the Chengs about certain city officials.
“There was more than one idea,” Mr. Robinson said of scenarios introduced by Mr. Swain. “They mention people’s names and, ‘Should we do this and that?’ “
The elder Mr. Cheng, 65, and the younger Mr. Cheng, 39, were charged last month in connection with a scheme in which prosecutors said they tried to circumvent the city’s moratorium on new cab companies.
Court documents say the scheme ran from 2010 to 2011 and that the former taxicab commissioner offered to help the men backdate paperwork in exchange for cash so they could obtain business documents to start two new cab companies.
During that time, Mr. Swain served as the chairman of the commission. But the former police officer had a history of working undercover. In 2009, it was revealed he had worn a wire to expose a large-scale bribery scheme within the city’s taxicab industry.
Prosecutor Lionel Andre cited the recordings in court Monday and said the unnamed public official at the center of the investigation would likely testify for three days during the trial.
Mr. Robinson said the evidence prosecutors had against the Chengs didn’t amount to much.
“We heard it. We feel good about it,” Mr. Robinson said.
In January, federal agents met with the father and son at their homes to see if they would cooperate in ongoing investigations, Mr. Robinson said.
The elder Mr. Cheng has been closely tied to many D.C. politicians, often hosting fundraisers for elected officials at his Chinatown restaurant. Though Mr. Robinson believes it was those relationships that prosecutors sought to probe, the charges in this case are narrowly focused.
“I read this as being a very contained indictment,” Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle said as attorneys reviewed their calendars before a December trial date was set. “I don’t see this as being very far reaching.”