Anthony “Tony” C. Y. Cheng Sr., 66, and Anthony R. Cheng Jr., 40, admitted to paying off two public officials to try to get around a citywide moratorium on taxicab licenses so they could start a cab and tow truck business. (Andrea Bruce/The Washington Post)

The owner of two popular Chinatown restaurants and his son pleaded guilty Wednesday in U.S. District Court to making illegal payments to public officials as part of an alleged taxicab licensing scheme.

Standing next to their attorneys, Anthony “Tony” C. Y. Cheng Sr., 66 and his son, Anthony R. Cheng Jr., 40, admitted to paying off two public officials to try to get around a citywide moratorium on taxicab licenses so they could start a cab and tow truck business — charges that were discovered to be part of an undercover FBI sting operation.

The elder Cheng, who owns Tony Cheng’s Mongolian and Tony Cheng’s Seafood on H Street in Northwest faces a maximum of a year in prison and a $100,000 fine on the misdemeanor charge. But Judge Ellen Huvelle said that as part of the plea agreement, Cheng might avoid jail time altogether or get a maximum of six months.

The younger Cheng pleaded guilty to a felony and faces a maximum of two years in prison and a $250,000 fine. As part of an agreement with prosecutors, the younger Cheng also could get no jail time or up to six months, the judge said.

The men were indicted last summer and were scheduled to go to trial next month. The Chengs are now scheduled to be sentenced July 17.

The charges, prosecutors say, involve conversations the Chengs had in 2010 and 2011 as part of a scheme to not only pay off public officials to obtain licenses to run a taxicab company, but also steer city taxi and towing contracts to the pair’s tow-truck company. Prosecutors say that the elder Cheng, during a 2010 meeting at one of his restaurants, offered to give the public official 10 percent of his tow-truck profits if the official agreed to help him create the proper paperwork for establishing the business with the D.C. Taxicab Commission and steer 100 D.C. cab-towing referrals a month to his now-defunct towing company.

Prosecutors also say that in 2011, the younger Cheng offered the city official $250 to secure licenses for their taxi company. At the time, there was a citywide moratorium on new operating licenses. Cheng, prosecutors said, asked the official to backdate the application on behalf of himself and his father. Cheng also paid $1,500 in cash to the official to do that.

The public official who met with the Chengs and wore a wire, Cheng’s attorneys say, was Leon Swain Jr., the former head of the D.C. Taxicab Commission.

After the hearing, the Cheng family and their attorneys said they were pleased with the deal. The elder Cheng, a leader in the Chinatown community who had raised funds for local politicians, even thanked reporters for covering the hearing. Attorneys for the men and family members said that prosecutors, along with Swain, had tried to link the Chengs with alleged public corruption and bribery of Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) or various members of the D.C. Council.

“The prosecutors tried to use this case to pressure him to give them something corrupt about the mayor, which he couldn’t do,” Ken Robinson, one of the attorneys for the elder Cheng, said after the hearing.

But in a statement, U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. said the case was about the “pay-to-play culture” and not aimed at any particular D.C. politician.

“We hope that these convictions serve as a warning to other business owners who are tempted to make illicit payments to public officials in order to get ahead,” Machen said.

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