By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 2, 2011; 8:20 PM
A once-powerful figure in the D.C. taxi community acknowledged in federal court Wednesday that he distributed more than $250,000 in bribes in a scheme to obtain lucrative licenses to operate cab companies in the District and to influence city legislation that would benefit his business.
Yitbarek Syume, 53, who has been held in the D.C. jail since his arrest in October 2009, pleaded guilty to bribery, conspiracy to commit bribery, and mail fraud. He could be sentenced to up to nine years in prison under federal guidelines.
Under the terms of his plea deal, Syume has agreed to cooperate with authorities investigating what prosecutors have described as an audacious and long-running scheme that has led to charges against 40 people, including a top staffer on the D.C. Council. That staffer, Ted G. Loza, pleaded guilty to corruption charges last month.
Federal prosecutors and agents have declined to comment on the scope of their probe or whether they have other targets in mind. Syume's attorney, Thomas Abbenante, also declined to comment about his client's cooperation.
At the end of the hearing, Syume told U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman through an Amharic interpreter that he wanted "to apologize to my family, to the Ethiopian community and to this court."
No sentencing date has been set.
From 2007 through 2009, authorities say, Syume and two other men conspired to shell out tens of thousands of dollars in bribes to Leon Swain, chairman of the D.C. Taxicab Commission, so they could obtain licenses to operate multi-vehicle taxi companies, authorities have alleged. Those cash payments were delivered in the expectation that the taxi licenses would become more lucrative when the District government eventually enacted a moratorium on such permits. The D.C. Council passed such legislation in mid-2008.
The men also tried to create what they hoped would be a profitable exemption to that law for hybrid vehicles.
Unbeknownst to the three associates, however, Swain tipped off authorities after he was first offered a $20,000 bribe by Syume in September 2007, according to prosecutors. He began working as an FBI informant.
Authorities have charged Syume's two associates - Berhane Leghese and Amanuel Ghirmazion - with conspiring to bribe Swain. Leghese's job was to prepare documents needed to obtain the licenses, and Ghirmazion arranged the financing, authorities have said. Both of their cases are ongoing.
In court papers, prosecutors have alleged that Syume made more than a dozen cash payments to Swain - including a $60,000 bribe that he handed to Swain in a grocery bag.
Syume, who owned a taxi repair shop, admitted in court Wednesday that he gave Swain about $100,000 in cash on one occasion in January 2008. Most of the payments and meetings with Swain were either videotaped or tape-recorded by federal agents.
As part of the plea deal, Syume admitted that he paid Swain about $90,000 in 2009 to help dozens of Ethiopian men obtain licenses to operate cabs in the District. Authorities arrested 36 men - all Ethiopian immigrants or Ethiopian Americans - on charges that they participated in that scheme.
In pleading guilty to an unrelated charge of mail fraud, Syume acknowledged that he defrauded the New York State Insurance Fund of $110,790 in workers' compensation benefits during a four-year period that ended in 2008.
Swain - a former D.C. police officer who was present at the Reagan assassination attempt in 1981 and gained a modicum of fame for then transporting the assailant, John W. Hinckley Jr., to D.C. police headquarters - has declined to comment on his role in the investigation.