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.