By Del Quentin Wilber and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 25, 2009; A01
The chief of staff to D.C. Council member Jim Graham was arrested on bribery charges Thursday, accused of taking trips and $1,500 in payoffs in exchange for pushing legislation that would reward some in the taxicab industry.
Ted G. Loza, 44, was taken into custody at his home on Columbia Road NW a little before 7 a.m., just hours before federal agents descended on his office at city hall to search records and computers.
Federal prosecutors allege that Loza accepted a "stream of things of value," including cash, the use of vehicles and trips, to help an unnamed informant with a financial interest in the taxicab industry. The trips included one to Ethiopia and free limo rides to airports and other destinations in the D.C. area, two law enforcement sources said.
Graham (D-Ward 1) introduced legislation that would have benefited the informant, authorities said. The council member is not charged in the indictment and denied any wrongdoing. "I have had no engagement whatsoever in any illegal or unethical behaviors," he said.
As part of the investigation, prosecutors said, the informant wore a hidden microphone. In July, after accepting a $500 bribe from the informant, Loza explained his motives for accepting the cash, prosecutors said. "You know I need it," Loza said, according to the transcript of the conversation in court papers. "That's why I take it, you know."
Loza pleaded not guilty to two counts of receiving a bribe by a public official during a brief appearance Thursday before U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman. Loza, a native of Ecuador who is not a U.S. citizen, was ordered to surrender his passport and was released on personal recognizance. He faces up to 30 years in prison for each count if convicted.
Loza's attorney, Pleasant S. Brodnax, said the Graham staffer did nothing wrong. "When all the facts come out and the entire context of this is understood, you will see that Mr. Loza is not guilty of bribery," Brodnax said.
Graham, first elected to the council in 1998 and known for his bow ties, said he was "deeply troubled" by the indictment and will cooperate fully with federal investigators. The council member said he has "never had a conversation with Teddy Loza where he came to me and said, Will 'you do this or will you do that?' "
And, Graham said, "nothing that has been alleged, whether it occurred or didn't occur, had any influence on any action I took in terms of the legislation on taxicabs, which I introduced."
Law enforcement sources said the probe is broad. Although the accusations against Loza are fairly recent, law enforcement sources said agents have been conducting a corruption investigation for at least a year. They also obtained wiretaps as part of the probe, said the sources, who, like other sources, spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing.
On Thursday, federal agents spent most of the day searching Loza's office. But, according to the search warrant, they were not authorized to go through Graham's work space. They also seized files from the D.C. Council's mainframe computer in the basement of the John A. Wilson Building. Graham was leading a meeting of the Metro board when the raids began.
The warrant said agents were searching for documents tied to taxicab legislation, licenses, medallions, a taxi company called United Fleet Management and Fiesta D.C., a nonprofit organization that puts on an annual Hispanic festival in Mount Pleasant.
According to the organization's Web site, Graham is an honorary board member for the organization. Loza's wife, Ligia X. Mu?oz, works for the organization and is in charge of its finances and administration. Loza was on the board until recent weeks.
Yitbarek Syume, owner of United Fleet Management, declined to comment.
Agents also were looking for any correspondence and financial information connecting Graham, Loza, the informant and "other Washington D.C. area public officials," the search warrant says.
According to law enforcement sources and court documents made public Thursday, Loza is accused of taking bribes from an unidentified man with "financial interests in the taxi industry." In a 10-page indictment, authorities allege that Loza accepted separate $1,000 and $500 cash payments in June and July from a man, identified only as "Individual Number 1" in the indictment. In exchange for the cash, trips and free car rides, Loza agreed to promote legislation and policies that helped the unnamed individual, the indictment alleges.
The indictment says Individual Number 1 wanted to limit the number of taxicab licenses issued by the District and to create an exception for hybrid vehicles under D.C. law.
Three sources familiar with the investigation identified Individual Number 1 as Abdulaziz Kamus, the executive director of the African Resource Center, a nonprofit organization that assists African immigrants, according to press accounts. Kamus, who hails from Ethiopia, has also been quoted in the media as an advocate for Ethiopian taxi drivers.
Kamus could not be reached Thursday. The number at the African Resource Center was disconnected.
Graham is not identified by name in the indictment but is referred to as "Public Official No. 1." He is chairman of the council's Committee on Public Works and Transportation. The committee has oversight of the D.C. Taxicab Commission.
The indictment says federal agents tape-recorded a meeting between Loza and Individual Number 1 on June 19. In that meeting, the individual handed Loza a "Father's Day" present of an envelope containing $1,000 in cash, according to the indictment.
Individual Number 1 said the money was from him and another person, who apparently also works in the taxi industry.
"What do you want me to do?" Loza asked after receiving the cash, according to a transcript in the indictment. "What do you want me, I'll talk to [Graham]. And I can call you back later on."
Ten days later, the indictment alleges, Individual Number 1 met with Graham to discuss taxicab legislation with a hybrid car exemption. The council member "declared that he would introduce that legislation," the indictment says.
The next day, June 30, Graham introduced a bill that he has said was designed to limit the number of cab operators in the city because he feared the District was being overrun by taxis. The bill would create a medallion system, similar to those in New York and Boston, in which users would buy licenses to operate a taxi. Under the bill, which was co-sponsored by Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), operators of "low emissions," or hybrid, vehicles would get such medallions for free.
On July 10, Individual Number 1 and Loza met again. During the conversation, Loza handed the individual a copy of Graham's bill.
"Beautiful, wow, beautiful," the person said, according to a transcript in the indictment. "Really. I want to thank you very much."
The person then asked about hybrid vehicles.
"Yeah, that's the exception," Loza said. "But, but, read it, and uh, then let me know if there's something . . . that, that raises your eyebrows."
Individual Number 1 then said the other unidentified person also "wanted to really thank you as well for this."
"He does?" Loza asked. "What, didn't he thank me or didn't you guys thank me already?"
Individual Number 1 then handed Loza $500 in cash, the indictment says, and the council staffer pocketed the money.
Loza has known about the investigation for some time, said his attorney, Brodnax. Graham said Loza told him that he was under investigation several days ago.
"The fact of the matter is, in the course of a day of council activities, a great many people ask you to do a great number of things," Graham said. "I would want to see this more specifically, but I know I have engaged in no such activities."
Staff writers Yamiche Alcindor and Nikita Stewart and researchers Meg Smith and Julie Tate contributed to this report.