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One works as a cashier at a gas station. Another works at a nursing home, trying to save money so he can finish his nursing degree. And another logged 16-hour shifts as a parking lot attendant with a 1-year-old boy to feed at home. During the last several months, each had decided on becoming a cab driver in the hope that the new job might better their lives.

Now they are the subject of a federal indictment. In early October, the three men—along with more than 30 others—were arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit bribery in connection with the ever-expanding federal probe of the District’s taxicab industry. In September, these men allegedly bribed Taxicab Commission Chairperson Leon Swain Jr. in exchange for under-the-table taxi operator licenses.

The more than two-year-old dragnet has touched the lives of some bigger names around municipal D.C. Ted Loza, chief of staff to Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, stands accused of accepting bribes to influence taxicab legislation; the man who offered those bribes was well-known Ethiopian community leader Abdulaziz Kamus, who turned into an informant. And then there’s Swain, the little-known District government employee who after first being offered a bribe in 2007 immediately went to authorities to bring these folks down. Swain recently received hero’s praise in a Washington Post editorial.

The other people in this drama haven’t yet gotten their own editorial. Nor are they known in the hallways of the Wilson Building. The majority of these defendants immigrated from Ethiopia; many came to the United States seeking asylum from their home government’s persecution. During their initial court appearance, they all entered not-guilty pleas. They now struggle with trying to explain their innocence in imperfect English to busy court-appointed attorneys.

They face a huge climb in U.S. District Court. To hear the prosecution tell it, these defendants have been caught on tape bribing Swain. Tons of footage lies behind the allegations, say the authorities. The charges against them are serious. They all face up to five years imprisonment and a $250,000 fine. While they are all here legally, for some of them, a far worse penalty hangs over all future proceedings: the possibility of deportation to the country they had fled.

In a press release sent out on the day of their arrests, Acting U.S. Attorney Channing Phillips could not have sounded a more strident note on prosecuting these men: “The allegations contained in these indictments are serious—describing alleged corrupt activities at the heart of our taxicab industry—and reflect our determination to root out corruption in our government.”

At first glance, the allegations against this group of men have all the hallmarks of a ground-up bribery scandal. There was cash; there were envelopes; there were secret meetings.

But as many of the defendants will argue in court: How can you pay a bribe if
everything about the alleged scheme was kept secret from you? If you knew nothing about the money you handed over and the man to whom you handed it? If you were led to believe that everything you were doing was proper?

Daniel Belayneh(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Within a few days of their arrests, many of the men found their way to Daniel Belayneh’s Shaw office. Belayneh is the executive director of the Ethiopian Community Services and Development Council, a nonprofit that assists immigrants in obtaining employment, housing, and affordable healthcare. Belayneh is used to coordinating English-language or pharmacy-tech classes, not providing legal aid.

They arrived in bunches—five, then 10, then 15. Belayneh had them all take seats in his second-floor classroom. A mock pharmacy dominated the front of the room. The men looked panicked, he says.

When Belayneh first heard of their arrests, he had condemned them. If the allegations against the men were true, he says, then they had irreparably damaged the reputation of the Ethiopian community. “It was heartbreaking,” he says. “We have very good name as hard workers.”

“I didn’t know them before,” Belayneh says. “They said, ‘We want to talk to you.’ I said, ‘Tell me the story…tell me the truth so I understand.’”

By the time the men finished telling their stories, Belayneh became convinced that their arrests were unjust. “I never expect this kind of tragedy,” he says. “How can this happen?”

Here’s how: One of the defendants has worked as a parking lot attendant since 2002. In early September, two men showed up at his lot. He knew both men. One was an acquaintance from weekend soccer games. The other was Yitbarek Syume, an entrepreneur who ran United Fleet Management and owns a trio of cab companies—Jet, Mutual, and Olympic.

“I knew him—very rich guy,” the lot attendant says. “Very rich guy, he’s helpful guy on the radio.” He had listened to Syume’s Car Talk–style call-in show. He says he even phoned in once simply to express his admiration for the man personally. But until that day in September, he had never met Syume.

That day Syume wanted to talk to him. He had a job offer. “I give you big opportunity because you work hard,” the attendant recalls Syume telling him. Syume offered him work as a driver with his Jet cab company.

The lot attendant says he was blown away by Syume’s praise. He says he couldn’t believe that Syume had heard about him and his work ethic. He still beams with pride when telling this part of his story.

The lot attendant seized on the offer. He had come to the United States roughly nine years ago, seeking asylum. He dreamed of spending more time with his boy. He hoped to marry his girlfriend.

Syume’s partner gave the lot attendant a taxicab driver form and a series of instructions. He had to get a copy of his driver records from the Department of Motor Vehicles, and he had to pass a physical. He was then informed that he had to get fingerprinted at the commissioner’s office.

The lot attendant was never told that this process was a highly expedited way of obtaining a taxicab license. He was not briefed on the usual procedure—that is, completing a 60-hour course at the University of the District of Columbia and passing the cab commission’s hack test.

The lot attendant was instructed by Syume’s partner to show up at Syume’s small mechanic shop on 5th Street NE in Eckington to go through the improvised licensing process. There, Syume explained how his Jet cab company worked. The attendant showed off his son, whom he was taking care of that day. “I show him. I say thank you,” the attendant recalls. “I don’t have words at that time. He’s a big guy. He’s very, very rich for my mind.”

The lot attendant then followed Syume to what he thought was the taxicab commission office. Syume brought several other men needing to be fingerprinted. When they arrived, the attendant asked if he could bring his son inside. Syume told him that was a bad idea. Instead, one of Syume’s associates watched the boy.

The attendant says he was still worried about leaving his son. But Syume assured him that everything would be OK. “You are the first,” the attendant recalls Syume telling him. “Come on in.”

Syume handed him an envelope marked with the D.C. Taxicab Commission stamp on the front. Syume told him he had to give the envelope to Swain.

The attendant says he went inside a dwelling and was fingerprinted and photographed. He didn’t know that he was walking into a very efficient bribery factory.

He says Swain played the good host. But when it was all over, he says, he forgot about handing over the envelope, in part because he was worried about his son. Syume reminded him, and the lot attendant handed the goods to Swain.

Swain told the attendant to take a seat. He then opened the envelope. The attendant says he saw cash inside.

The attendant says he turned to Syume and asked about the money.

“He told me that’s the company fee,” the attendant explains.

According to the indictment, there were three dates that Swain had set up for fingerprinting sessions with different men: Sept. 11, 18, and 20. Each time, envelopes exchanged hands. All three defendants interviewed by Washington City Paper did not want their names printed for fear of retribution.

The other two defendants interviewed for this story say they were escorted by Syume to get fingerprinted and that he gave them envelopes with instructions to pass them on to Swain. Both say they did not know what the envelopes contained.

“[Swain] asked me, ‘Do you have something for me?’” recalls the nursing home worker. “I was confused the first time. Then I remember what Yitbarek said and I gave him the envelope.” He says he didn’t see the money inside. But later, other aspiring drivers told him they believed it was a processing fee.

One defendant, the gas station cashier, says that he did eventually discover there was money in his envelope after he had handed it to Swain. He also asked Syume about the cash. He says Syume told him it was payment for his physical.

“He said, ‘We know everything,’” the cashier recalls Syume telling him. “I thought he paid for the medical. We work for him.”

Swain told them they would be getting their licenses in January. He also told them that if they happened to see him on the street they should pretend they had never met. If they had questions, they were to see Syume. If this roused any suspicions among them, Syume put their minds at ease.

“Yitbarek told us too many people want to be taxicab driver,” the nursing home worker explains. “If they know about it, everybody would come to him. [Syume said] ‘This is a secret, because we are lucky to have that job.’”

That night, the parking lot attendant says that he went to church to thank God for his new employment. “That day was big day for me,” he says. “The big guy is giving me a company job, the Jet company—a famous company.”

A short time later, the men were instructed to attend a cabbie orientation and take a test at the D.C. Police Department’s training academy in Blue Plains on Oct. 2. He and dozens of others were arrested there. They each were charged with conspiracy to commit bribery. “I was really scared at that time,” says the nursing home worker. “I was hungry. I had a headache. Also, I was tired and scared, you know? I never had that feeling before.”

Two of the defendants said they would testify against Syume if asked.

The indictment offers only a skeletal version of the prosecution’s case. It totals seven pages; the list of defendants alone takes up the entire first page and spills onto the second.

The defendants, according to the document, had “different tasks” and “participated in the conduct of the organization through various criminal acts” and “participated in activities required to obtain corruptly licenses to operate taxicabs.”

The indictment singles out only two individuals—Syume and Suraphel Ayalew—as the recruiters and organizers of the bribery scheme. They allegedly collected $110,000 for bribe payments to Swain. The other defendants are alleged only to have met Swain “to provide fingerprints and photographs in conjunction with attempting to obtain taxicab operator licenses, at which time they also paid cash to the Chairperson for the operator licenses.”

All three defendants say they did not collect money for Swain or knowingly give money to Swain. They were left clueless about any bribery operation, they say. Surveillance video turned over by prosecutors last week appears to back up the defendants’ claim. Taken shortly before the fingerprint sessions, the video recorded a meeting held at the Swain home. In attendance were Swain, Syume, and Ayalew.

They aren’t talking about 30 possible illegal licenses. They are talking about obtaining 500 licenses at $500 a pop. Swain holds court in the living room, controlling the conversation.

“What we’re going to do is set up the fingerprints and we’ll do it here.…I can’t fingerprint 500 people by myself,” Swain tells the two.

Swain continues going over the plan. “Get everybody situated,” he says. “And then we’ll have them come down here.…Probably about 10 at a time….We don’t need this to go no further than the three of us.”

That utterance by Swain may provide an opening for defense attorneys in the case. Consider that the three defendants interviewed about the charges insist that they knew nothing of the machinations orchestrated by Syume and the others. The fact that Swain insisted on keeping everyone in the dark will bolster all claims that the defendants acted innocently, albeit naively.

Later in the video, Swain warns Syume and Ayalew: “I don’t expect people to be showing up at my offices asking me about their ID cards or anything like that.…Like I said, your people cannot be showing up at the [commission office].”

“Yeah. Yeah,” Ayalew assures Swain. “That’s guaranteed 150 percent.”

Still, Swain continues to stress the issue. “The day that we do this thing here,” he says. “We cannot afford to have any guy just milling around the area. They come in. We do what we have to do.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office could not say how much the investigation and prosecution of these defendants has cost. The probe has lasted more than two years and involved D.C. police officers, FBI agents, and hours of recordings. “It was a large-scale operation,” says U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesperson Ben Friedman.

Robert Lee Jenkins Jr., an attorney representing one of the defendants in the case, thinks that whatever law enforcement spent, it was a waste of public funds. “This city is full of potential bribery cases,” he says. “You would have thought other individuals would have been targeted as opposed to some relatively poor immigrants who were simply trying to work hard and make a living.…I think when the facts come out, that will be crystal-clear to anyone.”

Another defense attorney with the case calls the government’s allegations “bogus.” “These people were led down a primrose path and didn’t know what was going on,” argues the attorney. “They were given those envelopes. It had D.C. Taxicab Commission on the return address. They thought everything was on the up and up.”

But all the pretrial arguments may amount to just that. There’s a chance many defendants won’t come close to pressing their case before a jury. A number of defense attorneys say they are worried that if their clients lose at trial there is a good chance that they could be deported. “Every time you have a case like this, you naturally are concerned about the immigration consequences,” explains defense attorney Nathan I. Silver II.

At a status hearing last week, the deportation issue was at the bottom of a long list of problems. First, the courtroom ran out of headsets. Not all the defendants could hear the translator. So more headsets had to be found. It then took the judge close to two hours to make sure each defendant understood what was going on.

Prosecutor John Crabb Jr. said that plea deals were being offered. But the deals would not mean the defendants would escape the prospect of deportation. Crabb said he would consider the issue. “That’s part of plea negotiations,” he explained.

For now, the defendants must handle their uncertain fates as well as a judicial proceeding with the feel of a cattle call. The lot attendant waited patiently for last week’s hearing to start. He stood outside the courtroom with the others until he was told he could enter. As he made his way through the double doors for his first tedious hearing, he turned and said, “Pray for me.”