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Politically connected Chinatown restaurateur Tony Cheng and his son have been charged with bribing public officials to get taxi licenses.
Cheng and his son, Anthony R. Cheng Jr., wanted licenses to operate cab companies, according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office. In an attempt to get around a moratorium on new licenses, they allegedly started planning in November 2010 to bribe officials to get the businesses started anyway.
In 2011, prosecutors say, the two offered the head of the D.C. Taxicab Commission 10 percent of their eventual profits and $1,500 for helping set up the companies. Cheng’s son also allegedly bribed a Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs employee with $250. The person the younger Cheng allegedly thought was a DCRA employee, though, was actually an FBI agent. Although they eventually obtained the licenses, they never opened the cab companies.
Cheng has been a player in D.C. politics for decades, frequently in the orbit of Marion Barry. In 1998, the FBI planned to use him as a middleman in an abortive attempt to catch Barry on video accepting a bribe. Last year, Barry met with Cheng in an attempt to minimize the damage over Barry’s “dirty Asian shops” remark. Cheng, his son, and his companies have contributed at least $14,650 to District campaigns, according to Office of Campaign Finance records.
Ken Robinson, the Chengs’ attorney, wasn’t immediately available for comment. But Robinson tells the Post that his clients will fight the charges. Authorities want Cheng to cooperate in an investigation into Mayor Vince Gray and members of the D.C. Council, according to Robinson, but Cheng refused.
The charges against the Chengs raise an interesting question: who was the Taxicab Commission chair the Chengs allegedly met with? The indictment doesn’t name the person, but the timeline—-“early 2011″—-would suggest former chairman Leon Swain, who was fired in April 2011. But that would be odd, because Swain’s negative opinion of bribes was already well-known by then—-the last time someone offered him a bribe, he told the FBI.
Swain tells LL he was aware of the investigation, but declined to comment further.
Update, 4:10 p.m.: Swain confirms to LL that he was the taxicab chairman in the indictment. Which, given Swain’s history of telling law enforcement about bribe offers, makes you wonder what the Chengs were allegedly thinking.
The Cheng indictment:
Press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office:
WASHINGTON – Anthony C. Y. Cheng, Sr., and his son, Anthony R. Cheng, Jr., were indicted by a federal grand jury today on charges stemming from a scheme to bribe public officials to illegally obtain licenses and generate business opportunities for multi-vehicle taxicab companies, announced U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. and Valerie Parlave, Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office.
Cheng, 65, and his son, 39, were indicted by a grand jury in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Both were indicted on one count each of conspiracy to commit bribery and payment of a bribe to a public official. Anthony Cheng Jr. also was indicted on a second count of payment of a bribe to a public official. The conspiracy charge carries a statutory maximum of five years in prison and financial penalties. The bribery charge carries a statutory maximum of 10 years of incarceration as well as financial penalties.
According to the indictment, Anthony Cheng Sr. is the owner of businesses, including Tony Cheng’s Mongolian Restaurant, in the Chinatown area of Washington, D.C. Anthony Cheng Jr. owned a bus company that provided interstate transportation to the public.
The indictment alleges that the Chengs conspired from November 2010 through June 2011 to obtain licenses for multi-vehicle taxicab companies. At the time, a legislatively mandated moratorium was in place prohibiting the issuance of any new business licenses to operate new taxicab companies, taxicab associations and limousine businesses.
The Chengs allegedly sought to circumvent the moratorium by using falsified backdated corporate documents representing that their taxicab companies had been in existence since 2009. According to the indictment, they attempted to carry out their scheme by approaching, among others, a person described in the indictment as “Public Official Number One,” a public official who at the time chaired the District of Columbia Taxicab Commission. They also approached a person they believed was an official with the District of Columbia Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, described in the indictment as “Public Official Number Two;” unbeknownst to them, the indictment states, this person actually was an undercover FBI Special Agent.
During meetings in early 2011, “Public Official Number One” told the Chengs about the moratorium, the indictment alleges. The Chengs, meanwhile, agreed to pay “Public Official Number One” 10 percent of profits from their business endeavors, the indictment states. They allegedly collected and forwarded to “Public Official Number One” applications to corruptly obtain licenses for multi-cab companies. Anthony Cheng Jr. provided “Public Official Number One” with backdated paperwork, and Anthony Cheng Sr. provided him with $1,500 in cash to obtain the licenses, the indictment alleges.
The indictment alleges that Cheng Jr. met in March 2011 with “Public Official Number Two” and provided him with $250 in cash in return for backdated certificates of occupancy for two multi-vehicle taxicab companies.
The Chengs obtained two licenses for multi-cab companies – named Green Top Cab and ECO CAB Company – but never opened the businesses.
“Today’s indictment charges Tony Cheng and his son with paying cash bribes to two different government officials,” said U.S. Attorney Machen. “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.”
“Bribery and kickbacks, such as those alleged in today’s indictments, have no place in our government,” said Assistant Director in Charge Parlave. “We will continue to diligently work to protect the integrity of our government by pursuing those who seek to violate the system through such corruption.”
An indictment is merely a formal charge that a defendant has committed a violation of criminal laws and every defendant is presumed innocent until, and unless, proven guilty.
In announcing the charges, U.S. Attorney Machen and Assistant Director in Charge Parlave commended the efforts of those who worked on the case from the FBI’s Washington Field Office. They also commended the work of Assistant U.S. Attorneys Lionel André and Loyaan A. Egal, who are prosecuting the case.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery