D.C. taxi industry insiders sentenced in bribery scheme

February 10, 2012

A once-powerful figure in the D.C. taxi community was sentenced to more than three years in prison for dishing out more than $250,000 in bribes to obtain taxi licenses and influence city legislation that he hoped would benefit his business.

Before being sentenced to 41 months in prison, Yitbarek Syume, 53, of Silver Spring apologized to U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman, saying he was “fully responsible and guilty” for his actions. Syume, who pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit bribery and was the only defendant in the massive sting operation who was jailed after his arrest, will be credited for the 26 months he has served in the D.C. jail.

Syume’s lawyer, Thomas Abbenante, urged Friedman to sentence his client to time served, but the judge said prison time was appropriate because bribing officials is a serious offense that undermines the public’s confidence in government.

Friedman on Friday also sentenced two of Syume’s co-defendants to prison terms. Berhane Leghese, 49, of Arlington County was sentenced to a year and a day in prison, and Amanuel Ghirmazion, 56, of the District was ordered to serve eight months behind bars. Abdulaziz Kamus, 55, another member of the conspiracy who became a critical undercover FBI informant, was sentenced Monday to a year and a day in federal prison.

All four could have faced far stiffer terms but received credit for cooperating extensively with authorities.

Prosecutors said the men participated in a scam to bribe the chairman of the D.C. Taxicab Commission to obtain lucrative licenses to operate cab companies. Leon Swain, who was chairman of the commission at the time, reported the bribe attempts to authorities and soon became an undercover informant for the FBI, wearing a wire while collecting more than $250,000 in illegal payments.

Prosecutors have said that Syume, who owned a taxi repair business, was the ringleader of the scheme; Leghese and Ghirmazion primarily raised funds to finance the bribes.

The men also attempted to limit the number of such licenses issued to increase the value of their investments. To achieve that goal, they gave cash, gifts and trips to Ted Loza, chief of staff of D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) in the hopes of influencing legislation that would impose a moratorium on taxi licenses. Such a bill was enacted in 2008. Graham has denied any involvement in the scheme and has not been charged with a crime. Loza pleaded guilty last year to accepting $1,500 in gratuities and was sentenced to eight months in prison.

The four men sentenced this week were the last major figures to face punishment in an investigation dubbed “Cash Cab” by federal authorities.

Twenty-two of 36 men, all accused of participating in a scheme with Syume to funnel $90,000 to Swain for licenses to operate taxis, have pleaded guilty to minor charges; all have been sentenced to probation.

On Friday, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Crabb said he was pleased by the sentences, calling the prison terms “just and appropriate.”

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