Surreptitiously recorded audio and videotapes made by the FBI during a lengthy undercover sting of the D.C. government and the taxi industry were played in court for the first time Tuesday as prosecutors and defense lawyers sought to paint two very different portraits of a former top D.C. Council staffer being sentenced on corruption charges.
Prosecutors said the tapes prove that Ted G. Loza, a former chief of staff to council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), used his status to enrich himself as he accepted thousands of dollars in cash and free trips from a man seeking to influence legislation. Defense lawyers pointed to those same tapes as evidence that Loza was only accepting gifts from a close friend.
Loza, who pleaded guilty to accepting illegal gratuities and making a false statement, has admitted that he accepted $1,500 from an FBI informant who sought his help to influence legislation beneficial to some in the taxicab business. Loza, whose hearing continues Wednesday, will face eight to 14 months in prison when he is sentenced under federal guidelines by U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Crabb played 11 audio and videotapes of calls and meetings between Loza and Abdulaziz Kamus, an advocate for Ethiopian cabdrivers, who was working closely with businessmen in the taxi industry.
Kamus, who later pleaded guilty to bribery charges and became an FBI informant, and the businessmen were seeking legislation that would make their investments in the industry more profitable.
During a November 2007 phone call between Loza and Kamus, the staffer asked his friend for financial help, according to the tapes. “If possible,” Loza asked Kamus, “can you raise a little money for us to go on this trip” to El Salvador?
Within days, Kamus met Loza outside the John A. Wilson Building and handed the council aide $500 in cash, according to FBI special agent Jay Greenberg, who testified Tuesday.
In 2008, Kamus gave Loza a $500 or $1,000 “Father’s Day” present to spur taxi legislation; soon, he handed over an additional $2,000 in cash and a digital camera as a reward for getting a law passed, Greenberg said.
Kamus started working as an undercover informant in 2009, and the FBI began videotaping his meetings with Loza. That June, Kamus gave Loza $1,000 in cash as a second Father’s Day present. “Is this just a gift?” Loza asked Kamus. “What do you want me to do? I’ll talk to Graham.”
A few days after more taxi legislation was introduced by Graham, Kamus gave the staffer $500. “You know, I need it,” Loza told Kamus as he took the cash in Kamus’s car.
During that meeting, Kamus also handed Loza $2,600 in an envelope to pass along to Graham — money the council member did not accept, according to officials. During a meeting videotaped later, Loza returned the money to Kamus.
Graham said in an interview that he told Loza to immediately return the money but was so shocked by the experience that he did not call authorities.
“I accepted nothing of value, including cash, from anyone who may have had an intention of attempting to influence legislation,” Graham said.
While prosecutors sought to portray Loza as a corrupt official — “Was Ted Loza Abdul Kamus’s father?” Crabb asked Greenberg after the Father’s Day payments were disclosed — attorneys for Loza argue that he was only accepting gifts from a friend.
They noted that the aide had scant influence in the legislative process, that the taxi bills were popular and that Loza was a good friend of Kamus’s. During one videotaped meeting, Loza hugged Kamus and said, “I love you.”
“These were just gifts, not bribes,” said Pleasant Brodnax, one of Loza’s attorneys.