D.C. taxi official turned FBI informant recalls role in corruption probe
Leon Swain Jr. double-checked his recording device and then stepped from his black sport-utility vehicle into an overcast September Friday with one simple, yet potentially dangerous, task: to see if his cover had been blown.
“It’s showtime,” he thought.
For the past hour, Swain, a D.C. taxi official turned FBI informant in a public corruption probe, had been mulling over how to keep the investigation going, if only for one more week. He knew it would not be easy: That morning’s newspapers had been filled with headlines trumpeting the arrest of a D.C. Council aide, and his FBI handlers were nervous that their targets might suspect Swain was an informant.
Clad in a dark suit that hung loosely from his rotund frame, the taxi commission chairman took a deep breath and then lumbered across the parking lot to meet one of the targets sitting in an idling gold Mercedes-Benz.
In a city where federal authorities are investigating the campaigns of the mayor and the chairman of the D.C. Council, where a council member was forced to resign in January after pleading guilty to corruption charges and where lower-level officials seem to be indicted all too frequently, Swain not only turned down a substantial bribe but also became an FBI informant. He willingly wore a wire, accepted about $250,000 in payoffs from corrupt businessmen trying to control the D.C. taxi industry and spent two years looking over his shoulder wondering if anyone was onto him.
What did he get for his work? The voluble former D.C. police officer, a bespectacled 59-year-old retiree who shuffles because he has two wrecked knees, received not a dime, nor even a mention in self-congratulatory press releases issued by federal authorities. Stress wrecked his sleep, binge eating hoisted 60 pounds onto his considerable build, and his close-cropped hair and mustache turned increasingly gray. When his boss lost reelection, he was pushed out of his job.
Now, with the key figures recently sentenced, Swain is finally free to talk — about being an informant and what it was like to wonder whether the man in the Mercedes might put a bullet in his head.
To think it all started in a produce aisle.
Swain was pushing his cart through a supermarket in College Park on the warm Saturday of Labor Day weekend in 2007 when Yitbarek Syume materialized at his side. A powerful figure in the D.C. cab industry, Syume had called 30 minutes earlier to demand a meeting with Swain, the newly installed chairman of the D.C. Taxicab Commission.
Syume — a diminutive and soft-spoken Ethiopian American who had driven a cab before becoming a local taxi tycoon — had something important he needed to discuss, he told Swain over the phone. Immediately. The taxi commissioner, not wanting to offend Syume, suggested meeting while he shopped. Minutes later, Syume was throwing vegetables into Swain’s cart, extolling the importance of proper nutrition.
“What do you want, Yitbarek?” Swain finally asked, cutting short the small talk.
He and others in the taxi industry wanted to give Swain $20,000 to help him build “community support,” Syume replied. And with that, he left the supermarket, but not before promising to appear at Swain’s office Tuesday with the cash.
The taxi commissioner finished his errand in a fog and felt sick to his stomach. As he drove to his home in Southeast Washington, his mind roiled. Had he just been offered a bribe? What did Syume want for the money? He had met with Syume before and heard him and some of his associates talk about their visions for the industry and how they thought they could profit from a controversial switch from the zone fare system to taxi meters. Did that, Swain thought, have something to do with the promise of money?
Swain also wondered why Syume would offer him cash when the businessman knew he had spent 17 years as a D.C. police officer. He had even gained a modicum of fame on the force: In 1981, he drove John W. Hinckley to D.C. police headquarters moments after President Ronald Reagan was nearly killed by the would-be assassin, and he enlisted Sugar Ray Leonard in 1987 to persuade a kidnapper to turn over an 18-month-old girl.
Swain, a lifelong city resident who has connections in the D.C. political community and has weighed runs for the D.C. Council, was on his second tour on the taxi commission.
Within days of taking office in 2007 and having heard rumors about corruption in the cab industry, he told a group of taxi drivers: “I don’t want your money; I don’t want your liquor; and I don’t want women. There is nothing you have that I want.” For a brief moment, Swain wondered if Syume’s ham-handed approach bore the hallmarks of an FBI sting.
This account of Swain’s involvement in the taxi cab case was built on interviews with Swain, current and former federal authorities and lawyers familiar with the case, and a review of court records.
That night, Swain decided to report Syume to an adviser to then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who had tapped him to be chairman of the commission. Then Swain spoke with D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, who told him that she would send detectives to speak with him.
By Tuesday, the taxi commissioner was meeting with Syume in his Southeast office, which two D.C. police detectives had wired with recording devices before stationing themselves in a cramped adjoining bathroom.
Syume wasted little time in handing Swain an envelope stuffed with $14,000 in cash, telling him that he wanted to purchase licenses to operate cab companies. The next day, he gave Swain $8,000, explaining that he wanted to expedite the licensing process. He also said he thought the certificates would become increasingly valuable if the city limited the number of cab companies as expected.
Over the next two years, in exchange for licenses he didn’t realize were fictitious, Syume passed the taxi commissioner more than $200,000 in cash in folded newspapers, envelopes, shopping bags and even a pillow case — so much money, Swain says, that he remembers the payoffs as “just a blur.”
Not long after the first bribe, the FBI took the lead. And it soon became clear to agents and federal prosecutors that Swain seemed to relish his role, perhaps revisiting glory days on the police force. He strapped a pistol to his hip (as a former D.C. police officer he is allowed to carry one). And drawing on his lengthy experience as a vice officer, he provided a stream of advice about techniques, didn’t always take instructions well and criticized agents when he thought they made mistakes. Once, he chastised an agent for repeatedly driving through his meeting place in a conspicuous Ford Crown Victoria.
“I was a pain,” Swain concedes.
Despite the commissioner’s bluster, law enforcement officials say Swain played the role of corrupt official to near-perfection — prodding and cajoling his targets while capturing every bribe and incriminating word on tape.
“Get the money straight,” he told one of Syume’s associates in a recorded conversation. “If you’re not going to get me the money, tell me. But don’t tell me you’re going to give me the money, then don’t show up with it.”
The undercover work and the stresses of his day job — implementing the meter system, for instance, sparked lawsuits and angry confrontations with taxi drivers — eventually wore him down.
He grew apprehensive that Syume and his financial backers, always nebulous in his mind, might resort to violence. Concerned that bystanders might get hurt in potential crossfire, Swain quit his church choir.
Twice divorced with three grown children, Swain removed every photograph and personal item — including a grandson’s hand-drawn birthday card — from his office because he worried Syume might target his family if things went sour. He even asked the FBI to buy him an expensive guard dog, a request that was denied.
“He did not look good,” LaVerne Swain-Thompson, one of Swain’s five siblings, recalled after seeing her brother in 2008 or 2009. “I could tell something was wrong. I asked him about it, and he just told me, ‘There’s something going on, but I can’t tell you about it.’ ”
Unable to talk to friends or family members — Swain was mostly a loner anyway — he came to increasingly rely on his D.C. police handler, Detective Joseph Sopata, a veteran officer who remained on the case with the FBI. Nearly every day, Sopata called Swain to measure his mood and keep him calm with reassurances and jokes.
One way Sopata reduced the tension was to wager that Swain could not slip non-sequiturs into his recorded conversations. When Swain uttered one such phrase, “the Great Gazoo,” during a meeting in his office, Sopata later told the taxi commissioner that he nearly burst out laughing in the nearby bathroom. (Sopata declined to comment.)
“Joe knew what I was going through,” Swain said. “Without him, I would have put an end to it. It was just overwhelming. He helped me through a very tough period.”
Swain also came to depend heavily on the District’s then-Attorney General, Peter Nickles. Known for his brusque demeanor, Nickles surprised Swain by calling at least twice a week to check on him, always expressing earnest concern.
“His effort was heroic,” Nickles recalled recently. “The roughest part was that it never seemed to end. The FBI would tell him it will be over in a week, then two weeks would pass and then a month would pass and they would have him accept more cash. . . . I asked him a couple of times if it was too much and I had to pull the plug, and he would say: ‘No, I love the city. I love my job. I’m determined to see it to its end.’ ”
‘I hear rumors’
As the investigation wore on, Swain met with more people suspected of being involved in the scam, including Abdul Kamus, an advocate for Ethiopian taxi drivers and a close associate of Syume’s. Swain accepted $20,100 from Kamus for taxi licenses, and the FBI soon confronted the suspect and persuaded him to also become an informant. While wearing a recording device, Kamus handed $1,500 to Ted Loza, a top staffer to the influential council member Jim Graham (D-Ward-1).
When Loza was arrested on a Thursday in late September 2009 and word spread that Kamus was an informant, Swain was told by a taxi driver that Syume was gunning for him. Then he got a call from an FBI agent who said that Syume was sitting in his gold Mercedes in a parking lot near the Taxicab Commission offices.
Swain and an undercover FBI agent were worried that Syume knew the taxi commissioner was an informant. Maybe he was waiting there to silence him, Swain thought.
Still, Swain and the agents wanted to keep the operation going until they could arrest Syume and several dozen taxi drivers on charges of bribing Swain to obtain individual operator’s licenses.
As he got out of his truck and shuffled toward the Mercedes, Syume was getting out of the car. Swain’s mind whipped through ways to handle Syume. As they converged, Swain decided to be bold, hoping to push Syume off balance.
“What the ---- happened,” Swain barked before a bit of probing: “I hear rumors you were pissed at me and you were going to take me out.”
“Oh, no, trust me,” Syume said — though it quickly became clear that he would not be forgiving Kamus.
“The one [Kamus] will be eliminated,” Syume said. “You’ll see . . . eliminated soon. . . . Permanently eliminated.”
Despite the heat, Swain persuaded the businessman to continue with the scheme. The next week, authorities nabbed Syume and 36 taxi drivers at the D.C. police academy when they showed up to take their tests and obtain their certificates. The major players, including Syume and Loza, would all eventually receive prison terms.
In the weeks after the arrests, Swain didn’t celebrate. Instead, he checked himself into a hospital to be treated for fatigue. “I had to be taught how to sleep again,” he said.
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