The elder Cheng, a D.C. restaurateur and leader in the Chinatown community, has been a frequent fundraiser for local politicians at his namesake restaurants, Tony Cheng’s Mongolian and Tony Cheng’s Seafood on H Street NW.
“That’s not bribes — that’s legitimate business,” said the Alexandria resident’s attorney, Ken Robinson. “He’s worked hard for 40 years and built a big reputation in Chinatown and in Washington. He’s a good man, and he’s not going to take any offer. We’re very confident he’ll be okay.”
Cheng has a wide range of business interests, including operating bus lines and a company that is one of the largest producers of wholesale Asian pears in the country. In November 2010, he and his son wanted to get into the taxi business, but there was a citywide moratorium on new operating licenses, according to the 10-page indictment.
The Chengs allegedly enlisted the help of two people they thought were public officials to backdate licensing documents and building certificates. They made it look as if the two companies — Green Top Cab and ECO CAB — had existed since 2009 and were each worth more than $1.1 million, according to the indictment filed in U.S. District Court in Washington.
The charges against Cheng and his son are the latest developments in a series of investigations by the U.S. attorney’s office for the District involving city government officials and influential local businessmen. Tuesday’s indictment does not appear to involve any elected officials, but it shows Machen’s willingness to take on some of the most well-connected players in D.C. politics.
“We cannot tolerate the culture of pay-to-play,” Machen said in a statement.
In 2000, the elder Cheng was honored by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), who proclaimed a Tony Cheng Day. In 2012, Cheng was among dozens on a host committee for a birthday celebration for Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and fundraiser for a constituent-services fund. In January, the mayor picked him as one of the city’s elite invited to sit in a viewing stand at the John A. Wilson Building for the presidential inaugural parade.
Among the beneficiaries of Cheng’s campaign cash have been mayors Williams, Gray and Adrian M. Fenty (D) as well as D.C. Council members Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and David A. Catania (I-At Large) and Chairman Phil Mendelson (D).
Robinson said federal authorities have been trying since January to get his client to cooperate in a broader public-corruption investigation. Machen’s office is also investigating the mayor’s 2010 campaign, and court documents show that a grand jury is investigating a former major city contractor and fundraiser, Jeffrey E. Thompson. No charges have been filed against Gray or Thompson.
Machen’s office also has charged — and gotten guilty pleas from — three former council members.
“I do know they are interested in getting as many people as possible to cooperate against the mayor and council members,” Robinson said.
The elder Cheng has refused to cooperate, he said, because “he hasn’t got anything on anyone.”
Tuesday’s charges carry a maximum sentence of five years for conspiracy and a maximum of 10 years for bribery.
As part of the scheme, the indictment says, Cheng and his son allegedly agreed to pay the chairperson of the D.C. Taxicab Commission — or “Public Official Number One” — 10 percent of their profits in exchange for backdating the licenses to run the two taxi companies. Leon Swain Jr. was the head of the commission at the time.
When Cheng allegedly met with Swain at one of his restaurants in early 2011, Swain had already played a well-publicized role as an informant for law enforcement in breaking up another scam involving taxi licenses. Swain wore a wire while collecting illegal payments, and his work led to charges against three business owners and dozens of others accused of paying bribes of more than $100,000 to obtain taxi-operator licenses.
He also approached federal law enforcement officials after Cheng came to him, officials said.
“I’m glad it’s finally coming to a head,” said Swain, who subsequently ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the D.C. Council. “It’s a continuation of what I said when I was campaigning. It’s the tip of the iceberg. There’s more to come.”
Anthony Cheng Sr., 65, allegedly gave Swain $1,500 in cash during a January 2011 meeting at the Chinese restaurant.
Anthony Cheng Jr., 39, allegedly paid $250 to an undercover FBI agent, posing as an official with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, in exchange for backdating building certificates for the taxi companies. His attorney, Eric Kirchman, denied the allegations, saying the father and son are “good, hardworking people.”
The Chengs obtained the licenses, but the two companies did not open for business, Machen’s office said.
Evans said Tuesday that he was “very saddened” by the indictment and praised Cheng Sr.’s long history of civic involvement in Chinatown.
“Tony has always been a staunch advocate for Chinatown, making it a better, finer, safer place,” he said.
“He’s always very supportive of charitable and other activities for the city and seemed to do quite well, so I would be surprised that there would be any hanky-panky,” he added.
Jennifer Jenkins and Annys Shin contributed to this report.