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Last week, while several of his colleagues were fending off allegations of being crooks, thieves, and liars, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham went on a peculiar kind of victory tour.
Prompted by newly released videos showing his former chief of staff Ted Loza taking $2,600 in cash to give to Graham, the councilmember went public with the news that FBI had repeatedly tried to bribe him, but he’d always said no.
“Every instance that I was given temptation, I said no. … I’m very proud of the fact that I said no,” Graham told NBC4’s Tom Sherwood. And indeed, Graham’s never been charged with any wrongdoing in the corruption case that could send Loza to prison for 14 months.
It turns out that the money Graham told Loza to give back in the summer of 2009 was from the FBI. It had been given to Loza by Abdul Kamus, an advocate for Ethiopian cabdrivers who had been busted by the feds the previous summer, and who was then working undercover.
Besides the cash, Graham told the Post that an undercover FBI agent had also offered him a trip to Miami. Graham also said the FBI bugged his phones and was behind a birthday gift of a portrait he initially believed was from the Ethiopian community.
Graham’s disclosure prompted one immediate question, though: Why didn’t he report Loza’s offer sooner, instead of waiting nearly two years? Council ethics rules require councilmembers to go to authorities immediately when they know of, or should know of, illegal activity.
Graham told reporters he felt the money was “radioactive” and in hindsight, he says he should have reported Loza’s actions. But he also says he never thought Loza’s offer was illegal.
Which is kind of weird, because secret recordings suggest Loza sure thought it was.
“So Jim just said, ‘I can’t do this,’” Loza told Kamus, in a conversation after Graham had rejected the money that the FBI secretly recorded. (A transcript appears in court papers in Loza’s case.)
“Oh, really,” Kamus replied.
“It’s illegal,” Loza said.
“Why?” asked Kamus.
“Because it is, it truly is,” Loza.
Loza went on to tell Kamus that Graham had shared with him a secret he wasn’t to tell anyone else: There was a rumor circulating that Graham had been bribed into supporting a taxicab medallion bill.
It’s not clear from the recorded conversations if Graham had heard this rumor before Loza had plopped down the cash on his desk. And of course, Loza could have made it up. But Loza clearly seemed spooked. He asked Kamus if there were microphones in his car, and tried to make clear that the money he’d taken already had simply been gifts between friends.
Loza also expressed his doubts about “Pete,” a self-described venture capitalist who wanted to invest in a D.C. taxi medallion system, who had given Loza $4,000 in cash during their first meeting in 2008 for Loza to use on a trip to Ethiopia. He should have had doubts: “Pete” was an undercover FBI agent.
Loza stressed to Kamus that the medallion bill Graham had introduced a month earlier was in no way intended to help “Pete.”
Loza questioned “Pete’s” business acumen, including his annoying habit of counting “every dollar on the table” when handing over money. And Loza indicated that one of those money-counting incidents involved Graham taking money from “Pete” in the form of a Thanksgiving donation.
“He did the exact same thing when we were at Chef Geoff’s when he gave us that donation, I don’t know what it was, I think it was the Christmas party,” said Loza
“Uh, Thanksgiving, I think it was,” corrected Kamus.
“Yes,” said Loza.
Later in the conversation, Loza mused, “How did people even start thinking… about that, that Jim Graham is on the—I mean, it makes me think he’s taken nothing except for, you know, that donation for the Thanksgiving.”
LL tried to ask Graham about the alleged donation. But Graham refused multiple requests to answer specific questions, instead replying repeatedly by flatly denying that he ever did anything wrong.
“I have committed no wrongdoing. I returned the money immediately. I have not been influenced by this FBI operation on any legislative act I took. Bests CM Jim Graham,” he emailed Wednesday afternoon, in one of several such missives he sent LL and LL’s editors in response to questions.
* * *
So why did the FBI go to such considerable effort—one video shows “Pete” trying to get Loza to bring Graham to his property in Miami, including apartments, villas, and a boat—to try and bribe Graham in the first place?
Based on Graham’s limited retelling, the FBI could have been on a fishing expedition, throwing money at Graham and hoping he’d take it. On one of the video recordings, Loza tells Kamus that Graham isn’t likely to take the $2,600, which Kamus said was from a refund on a first class ticket “Pete” had bought for Graham to come to Miami.
That explanation is certainly plausible; any rising prosecutor would have career-advancement motivation for targeting an elected official rather than an elected official’s aide. And small-fish crooks seeking leniency would certainly have motivation to make unproven claims about bigger fish.
(Both Loza and Kamus have pleaded guilty to corruption charges. Neither has been sentenced yet.)
Recent filings from the U.S. Attorney’s Office based on numerous recorded conversations and several FBI debriefings with key conspirators after they were arrested and began cooperating, though, raise some questions, as do the recently released audio and video tapes, and a copy of the FBI’s notes on some of those debriefings, which was obtained by Washington City Paper.
According to these sources, it looks like the FBI thought it could bribe Graham because the Ethiopian conspirators they were eavesdropping on believed they could bribe Graham—a perception that was probably strengthened when Loza repeatedly asked for money and gifts he said were for his and Graham’s use. Loza appeared to want people to believe that doing him favors would lead to legislative action on Graham’s part. That doesn’t mean Graham did anything wrong, of course; the people who tried to bribe him could have just been mistaken, and Graham has said Loza was acting on his own. But the FBI’s tapes may not be the total vindication Graham says they are.
It didn’t take long for Graham’s name to pop up after the FBI began its investigation in fall of 2007. The investigation started after former taxicab commissioner Leon Swain alerted authorities that he’d been offered a bribe by Yitbarek Syume, a former big wheel in the Ethiopian cab community.
At an October 2008 meeting with Kamus, Swain (who was wearing a wire), and Syume, Kamus said he intended to offer Graham a trip to Ethiopia in exchange for supporting legislation that would impose a moratorium on issuing taxi company licenses, court records show. Graham had already visited the east African country in 2004 on a trip with Loza that was organized by Kamus, according to an old Post story. In a court filing, prosecutors allege that “as part of the charged offenses, Kamus and others continued their custom of bribing [Loza] with trips, which began in 2004.”
Syume and his co-conspirators’ plan was to bribe Swain into getting as many taxi company licenses as possible. At the same time, they’d pay Kamus to use his political connections to get legislation passed to create a taxi medallion system that would make those licenses more valuable.
(Syume has also pleaded guilty to corruption charges and is awaiting sentencing.)
According to the feds, Kamus offered Loza the trip to Ethiopia in January 2008 in return for supporting the moratorium legislation. When Kamus asked what dates Loza would like to go, Loza replied, “Let me talk to Jim.”
The conspirators soon decided Graham would not go on the trip for “safety reasons” until after the taxi medallion legislation had passed, court records show. In a recorded phone call about the trip between Syume and Kamus, they refer to Graham as “the old man.” Syume said they used that code on the phone because they were “worried that it was being recorded, and that they knew what they were doing with taxicab related matters was illegal,” an FBI agent wrote in notes during one of several debriefing sessions with Syume, his lawyer, and federal prosecutors in early 2010, after Syume had been arrested.
Court records show Kamus lobbied Graham twice on legislation that would enact a moratorium on issuing taxi company licenses—before Kamus was arrested in June 2008 in a Bethesda hotel room and agreed to work with authorities. After Kamus flipped, he took “Pete” to meet with Graham a couple of times. Court records show Graham, Loza, “Pete,” and Kamus met in June 2009 to discuss a provision in the taxicab medallion bill that would give preference to low-emission vehicles, a preference that Kamus and the FBI undercover agent were seeking. The next day, Graham introduced the legislation.
Graham has steadfastly maintained that his support of specific taxi-related legislation was never influenced by any of the conspirators, including Loza.
Court records and the newly released recordings show that Loza wasn’t shy about asking Kamus for money and other favors, apparently cashing in on his government job. When Loza needed to find free parking in Adams Morgan for his girlfriend, he called Kamus, according the feds. When Loza wanted a free limo ride to the airport, he asked Kamus, telling him the next day to make it a “stretch limo,” according to court records.
On most occasions, it appears, Loza was asking for things for his own benefits, but court records and recordings show Loza sometimes indicated that he was seeking gifts or cash that would benefit Graham as well.
On Nov. 27, 2007, court records say the FBI recorded a call between Loza and Kamus in which Loza asked for money for a trip he and Graham were taking to Honduras and El Salvador for an anti-gang violence conference.
“The request I have for you, if possible—we have for you, if possible, can you raise a little money for us to go on this trip?” Loza asked Kamus. Kamus replied, “Definitely I will.” Kamus then called Syume and asked him to raise the money. The next day, Kamus gave Loza $500, according to court records.
Court records also indicated that Loza asked Kamus in November 2008 for a plane ticket for a friend of Loza’s to fly from Ethiopia to Finland. But in the recorded phone call, Kamus refers to the individual needing the ticket as “Jim’s friend.”
And in January of 2008, Loza asked Kamus “to provide complimentary use of four taxicabs” for Loza and Graham to use the night of Jan. 19, court records says.
So what does all this add up to? Certainly, there’s no evidence of criminal action on Graham’s part—as he would be the first to point out. But the federal filings still raise serious questions about Graham’s judgment and leadership skills as an elected official.
And they also lead LL to wonder: what else are we going to find out when the rest of the FBI’s tapes become public?
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery