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Since opening his first Chinatown restaurant in 1986, Tony Cheng has proved himself a savvy navigator of the District’s political waters. Cheng’s prominence saw him involved in attempts to end a protest over a Ward 8 carryout; and he tried to find an post-mayoralty job for Marion Barry in the 1990s. So how, in the fall of 2010, did Cheng sign on to such a dumb scheme?

The question hung over Cheng’s guilty plea hearing this afternoon, where Cheng and his son, Anthony R. Cheng Jr., admitted to offering or making payoffs to a public official in 2010 and 2011. Both the elder Cheng, who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of making offer of unauthorized compensation to a public official, and his son, who pleaded guilty to felony payment of a gratuity to a public official, face six months in prison when they return on July 17 for sentencing.

Unluckily for the Chengs’ plans, their scheme centered on then-D.C. Taxicab Commission head Leon Swain, whose undercover work in another taxi corruption scheme had already been reported more than a year before they approached him. Swain has said he worked with investigators on this case, as well.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the case beyond a statement, in which U.S. Attorney Ron Machen says that the Chengs’ pleas are a “sobering reminder” of “pay-to-play culture.”

Still, the Chengs’ District political connections likely made them an attractive target for Machen. In fact, Cheng knows so many District pols that his attorneys wanted to make sure that his connections to the Wilson Building wouldn’t prejudice jurors against him. Unlike other recent guilty pleas in District corruption cases, though, Cheng attorney Kenneth Robinson says his client won’t be cooperating with the feds against anyone else because he doesn’t have any information on other crimes to provide.

Besides, Robinson says, prosecutors don’t have much of a case.

“If they had any of this proof, they would not have given him this deal, let me tell you that,” Robinson tells LL.

In his statement of offense, the elder Cheng admits meeting with Swain in December 2010 and January 2011 in an attempt at his H Street Mongolian restaurant to secure a deal with Swain. In exchange for 10 percent of Cheng’s towing profits, Cheng wanted Swain to steer his towing work on impounded cabs his company’s way. (Taxi commission towing is apparently a tasty fruit for the District’s shadier operators, as current commission head Ron Linton says he’s been offered bribes for it, too.)

Cheng’s statement of offense describes him getting testy with Swain, who said he could only let Cheng tow 100 cars a month. Cheng told Swain that “hundred not enough.”

“More, who cares,” Cheng said. “You get taxicab, hundred a month, huh? Taxicab only a hundred a month?”

“Well, you figure, we only tow them when they do something illegal,” Swain replied. Apparently that was good enough for the Chengs, with Cheng’s giving Swain $1,500 to smooth deals within the District government.

But the younger Cheng had his own business plans as well, with Swain promising him that he could find a Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs official to backdate occupancy certificates for taxi companies Cheng wanted to start. That way, he could get around a moratorium on new cabs.

With Swain working for investigators, he introduced Cheng instead to an undercover FBI agent. Cheng gave the agent $250, which the agent said he’d use to buy an iPad.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery