During a snowstorm two years ago, Virginia Department of Transportation official Anthony Willie decided he should book a hotel room in Northern Virginia for the night. After all, he was in charge of snowplowing for the Burke area of Fairfax County.
While he was there, he wanted to have some fun. So he tried to get contractors and a co-worker to send women up to his room, according to court documents. At one point, the documents state, he called a female snowplow driver directly.
“Don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” he said. “Because I do extra for who you’re working for and make sure you are going to get yours.”
The exchange was caught on a wiretap that federal prosecutors in Virginia had fortuitously ordered just before the snow began to fall. Willie, of Culpeper, was sentenced this year to seven years in prison, having pleaded guilty to public corruption charges. He is among seven people convicted in a sweeping investigation.
Willie and his deputy, Kenneth Adams of Fairfax, demanded bribes from snowplow drivers in exchange for work. For six years they picked up payoffs at Outback Steakhouse and McDonald’srestaurants in the Washington suburbs. Along the way they increased their demands: Contractors said they were threatened when they balked at paying more.
Adams will spend five years in prison; five snowplow contractors who paid them received sentences of three months to a year.
All seven defendants said in court that the corruption at the Virginia Department of Transportation is endemic to the culture and more extensive than the scheme that put them behind bars.
“It is happening now, it will happen in the future,” contractor John Williamson said before being sentenced to three months in jail. “It is rampant, and it is part of the culture of the agency.”
Prosecutor Samantha Bateman acknowledged in court that “this is a more pervasive problem in the Virginia Department of Transportation than is known.”
The investigation, she said, is ongoing. One contractor wrote tens of thousands of dollars in checks to Willie’s wife, according to court filings.
A spokeswoman for the agency, Jennifer S. McCord, said in a statement that the actions of the former employees “completely run contrary to the values we uphold.”
The agency is in the midst of “ongoing reviews and internal controls to more securely safeguard procurement and contracting processes,” she added.
The Fairfax County Police Department created a position specifically to deal with the agency, according to one contractor. Police said that person deals primarily with road issues and also would investigate corruption.
Shaheen Sariri, a snowplow operator sentenced in March to a year in prison, contacted law enforcement more than a year before the VDOT investigation began. He wanted to report an unrelated alleged corruption scheme involving another contractor who had been married to his mother, defense attorney Peter Greenspun said in court. But Sariri denied paying any bribes himself and didn’t mention Willie or Adams.
Their crimes came to light only because another snowplow contractor complained to FBI agents looking into yet more alleged corruption at the agency involving falsified vehicle registrations. It is unclear where that investigation stands, but when FBI agents came to search Rolando Pineda Moran’s home, he told them they were missing the big picture.
“You’re looking at the trees. There’s a big forest out there,” Moran told them, according to defense attorney William Odio at the contractor’s sentencing for a six-month term.
The FBI approached Adams, who agreed to wear a wire. But even as he recorded meetings where contractors dropped off bags of cash, he was apparently still taking bribes. Prosecutors said in court that he had to be cut off as an undercover informant.
Adams also was selling cocaine — including to his boss, who was videotaped snorting the drug in his office, according to court documents. In addition to a public corruption charge, Adams pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute cocaine.
Both agency officials took between $200,000 and $300,000 in bribes, court documents said.
The snowplow scheme did not hurt taxpayers, Judge Leonie M. Brinkema acknowledged. The contracts were handled at a higher level and subject to state rules that require the agency to choose the lowest bidder with the right equipment. During big snowstorms, every contractor was called. Willie and Adams had control over only which plowing contractors got called during smaller storms that required fewer trucks.
“Is there a contractor that was deprived of work? I am unaware of one,” Williamson’s defense attorney, Christopher Leibig, said in court.
But Brinkema agreed with prosecutors that the corruption still undermined faith in the system. Its pervasiveness, she said, was a reason to impose serious punishment.
“Other people haven’t gotten the message,” she said.