WASHINGTON — A politically connected restaurant owner from Washington’s Chinatown district and his son were indicted Tuesday on charges of bribing public officials to obtain taxicab licenses.
According to the indictment, Anthony “Tony” Cheng and his son, Anthony Cheng Jr., gave $1,500 to the former chairman of the District of Columbia Taxicab Commission and promised to pay him 10 percent of their profits if he would help them falsify documents they needed to start a taxicab business.
The younger Cheng, 39, faces two counts of bribery and one count of conspiracy to commit bribery, the indictment says. The elder Cheng, 65, who owns a restaurant that bears his name, faces one count each of bribery and conspiracy.
Ken Robinson, the Chengs’ attorney, said about 10 conversations between his clients and the former taxi commission chairman, Leon Swain, were captured on tape by Swain, who has publicly disclosed his role as an FBI informant in a separate investigation of corruption in the taxi industry.
“Our contention is they never paid a bribe, but we’ll explain when the jury hears the tapes what’s being discussed,” Robinson said Tuesday. “They never sought any kind of improper payment or improper quid pro quo.”
Tony Cheng, an immigrant from China who lives in Alexandria, Va., has held numerous political fundraisers over the years at his downtown restaurant, which is decorated with pictures of him with elected officials and other dignitaries. He and his wife have contributed money to local politicians including former mayors Anthony Williams and Adrian Fenty and current councilmembers Jack Evans and Vincent Orange.
Robinson said law enforcement officials attempted to secure the Chengs’ cooperation in a broader probe of corruption in city politics, but the Chengs refused.
“The FBI knows Tony Cheng knows all of these people because every one of them for 40 years has been coming into his restaurant, and he’s done fundraisers for all of them in a proper and legal way,” Robinson said. “They tried to get him to cooperate, and both he and his son refused to cooperate because they contend that they’ve never done anything corrupt with any of these politicians either, so they’re not going to start lying about things to get out of this predicament.”
Robinson said he and his clients had been in plea negotiations with prosecutors since January and that they rejected a final offer about 2 weeks ago.
U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen has been investigating Mayor Vincent Gray’s 2010 campaign for more than two years, and three campaign aides have pleaded guilty to felonies. Last year, D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown pleaded guilty to bank fraud and was forced to resign, and Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. pleaded guilty to embezzling $353,000 in city funds and is serving 3 ½ years in prison. Earlier this month, former councilmember Michael A. Brown pleaded guilty to accepting $55,000 in bribes from undercover agents.
Machen is also investigating Jeffrey Thompson, a prominent local businessman and political donor who is suspected of funneling $650,000 in illicit funds into Gray’s 2010 campaign, according to court documents and attorneys in a related case. Two of Thompson’s associates have pleaded guilty to making illegal campaign contributions on his behalf. Thompson’s attorney has repeatedly declined to comment.
“We cannot tolerate the culture of pay-to-play in the District of Columbia. This prosecution demonstrates our commitment to holding accountable the businessmen who entice public officials to violate the public trust,” Machen said in a statement Tuesday.
Swain did not immediately return messages seeking comment. He was also part of an undercover operation that led to the bribery case against Ted Loza, the former chief of staff to Councilmember Jim Graham. Loza pleaded guilty to lesser charges of accepting an illegal gratuity. Swain chaired the taxicab commission from July 2007 through April 2011, when Gray fired him.
According to the indictment, the Chengs approached Swain, identified in the document as “Public Official Number One,” in early 2011 and discussed how they could backdate documents to get around a moratorium on new taxicab licenses. Tony Cheng gave Swain $1,500 in cash during a January 2011 meeting at the restaurant, the indictment says.
The Chengs also conspired to pay a $250 bribe to an undercover agent posing as an official in the district’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, the indictment says. The younger Cheng paid that amount to the agent in cash, according to the indictment.
Evans, the councilmember whose ward includes Chinatown, said he was surprised by the allegations.
“He’s always been very supportive of causes, particularly charity causes, and he seemed like he was doing quite well, so it surprises me that he would be indicted for trying to bribe someone on the taxicab commission,” Evans said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
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