29 Men Plead Not Guilty in D.C. Taxi License Case

Leon J. Swain Jr., head of the D.C. Taxi Commission, told officials two years ago about a bribery attempt.
Leon J. Swain Jr., head of the D.C. Taxi Commission, told officials two years ago about a bribery attempt. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 6, 2009

More than two dozen men took up two rows in a packed courtroom Monday to plead not guilty to accusations they bribed a D.C. government official to obtain taxi licenses.

There were so many defendants -- and defense lawyers -- that a clerk had to use a microphone to get everyone's attention. "So everyone has an attorney, correct?" she asked. "Defendants?"

At another point, U.S. Magistrate Judge John M. Facciola pounded his table for silence when the U.S. District Court room grew loud with conversations among defendants, between defendants and lawyers, and between lawyers and lawyers. "We've got chaos," he said. "Please be quiet."

Last week, 39 men were indicted on charges of giving a D.C. government official more than $300,000 to obtain taxi licenses. Nearly all of the men were arrested Friday and briefly appeared in D.C. Superior Court before being released on their own recognizance.

On Monday, 29 men returned to court to plead not guilty. Authorities were seeking 10 suspects who were not arrested Friday and did not appear in court.

One man who was arrested Friday, Yitbarek Syume, remained detained. Prosecutors said that he had threatened a witness. He has a detention hearing scheduled for Thursday.

Authorities have said the investigation began two years ago when Leon J. Swain Jr., chairman of the D.C. Taxi Commission, told authorities about a bribery attempt.

Swain began cooperating with federal agents. He collected more than $200,000 in bribes in 2007 and last year from three men hoping to buy licenses to operate multi-vehicle cab companies, prosecutors said.

Authorities said the men were hoping to buy as many licenses as possible in anticipation of a moratorium on the issuance of such permits. They thought they would profit from having the licenses when no one else could get them, authorities said.

Those three suspects are Syume, 51, of Silver Spring; Berhane Leghese, 47, of Arlington County; and Amanuel Ghirmazion, 53, of Hyattsville.

Last month, authorities said, Swain collected more than $100,000 from Syume and 36 men hoping to obtain licenses to operate individual cabs.

The 39 men are Ethiopian immigrants or Ethiopian Americans, lawyers and law enforcement officials said. Federal prosecutors said the men who appeared in court Monday are all legal residents or U.S. citizens. None received a taxi license after paying. It was not clear whether the men might have other taxi licenses from the District or other jurisdictions, authorities said.

The investigation became public last month when authorities arrested an aide to a D.C. Council member and accused him of accepting $1,500 in bribes and free trips from someone with a financial stake in the taxi industry.

Ted G. Loza, chief of staff for Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), has pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors said that Loza took the money and agreed to try to push taxi legislation through the council.

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