Correction: In an earlier version of this column, the name of D.C. City Administrator Allen Lew was misspelled.
Leon Swain Jr. is an unsung hero of our nation’s capital. Faced with an offer to pocket thousands of dollars in exchange for committing criminal acts against the city government, Swain, a longtime District resident who at the time chaired the D.C. Taxicab Commission, chose instead to report the bribery attempt. He then worked with city and federal authorities to bring the perpetrators to justice. For that service to his city, Swain received . . . not even a pat on the back.
Leon Swain deserves better.
My knowledge of Swain comes largely through media accounts of his exploits. He was the D.C. police officer who drove would-be presidential assassin John W. Hinckley Jr. to police headquarters after the failed attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life in 1981.
And of course there is the dramatic account this week by The Post’s Del Quentin Wilber of Swain’s work for two years as an FBI informant in the probe of taxicab public corruption.
The Swain-assisted investigation resulted in Ted Loza, chief of staff to D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and four taxi industry insiders being sent to prison. Twenty-two other men accused of participating in the bribery scheme pleaded guilty to minor charges and were sentenced to probation.
Swain’s civic actions stand in sharp relief to:
l The 61 D.C. government employees who, as WAMU recently reported, have been fired in the course of an ongoing investigation into workers receiving unemployment checks while employed by the city. Five others resigned, and one was suspended.
l Harry Thomas (D), who resigned his Ward 5 seat on the D.C. Council and pleaded guilty to federal felony theft and tax charges in January. He is to be sentenced next month.
l Mary Ayers-Zander, a former tax examiner for the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue, who was sentenced on March 19 to 30 months in prison on a federal charge of wire fraud over a scheme involving more than $400,000 in fraudulent refunds.
l Joe L. Parrish and Gregory A. Scott, two former inspectors at the D.C. Department of the Environment, who pleaded guilty March 13 to federal charges over a scheme in which they demanded and received $20,000 in bribes for not reporting serious infractions and assessing fines and penalties.
l Aisha Hackley, a former city police sergeant who was sentenced Feb. 3 to 18 months in prison over the theft of $40,005 from an 85-year-old District resident she met while investigating a crime.
And who can forget Harriette Walters, the tax assessment manager who pleaded guilty in 2008 to a scam that netted her and her co-conspirators in the city tax office $48.1 million over 20 years?
Swain put his life on the line for his city. He wore a wire for two years, accepting about $250,000 in payoffs from crooks trying to control the D.C. taxi industry. His was a portrait of integrity and courage in government.
Swain was appointed to the taxi commission by then-Mayor Adrian Fenty. He brooked no foolishness with the industry. He got rid of the zone system that favored some dishonest drivers over unsuspecting passengers.
Knowing that some drivers who deal largely in cash might be tempted to evade taxes, Swain reportedly provided lists of licensed cab drivers to the tax office, which could give the names to the Internal Revenue Service for monitoring. Swain also required cab companies to submit copies of their tax records.
The taxi industry was infuriated with Swain and Fenty and threw its weight behind Vincent Gray in the 2010 mayoral race.
Within weeks of Gray becoming mayor, Swain received an e-mail instructing him to report to City Administrator Allen Lew. That’s when Swain got the news that he was out.
Confirming that Gray had delivered on a pledge to fire Swain if elected, Larry Frankel, a cab driver and organizer of the Small Business Association of DC Taxicab Drivers, told The Post’s Mike DeBonis, “We’re glad that the mayor finally completed a promise he made to us.”
Asked this week to comment on Swain’s firing, Pedro Ribeiro provided this statement on behalf of Gray: “When the decision whether to reappoint Mr. Swain was made, the full story of his courageous acts on behalf of the District was unknown. We are grateful for his service. However, at that time, Mayor Gray wished to accelerate modernization of the District’s outdated taxicab industry and determined that new leadership was appropriate.”
It should be noted that The Post reported on April 2, 2010 — six months before the city’s Democratic primary, in which the mayoral race was effectively decided — that Swain had alerted federal authorities to a bribery attempt and was cooperating with their investigation into the taxi industry. Even earlier, in October 2009, Washington City Paper reported that Swain’s actions had made the case.
The administration’s faulty memory notwithstanding, an honest and courageous public servant was kicked to the curb without so much as a formal recognition of his service.
Our illustrious D.C. Council has found time over the years to pass ceremonial resolutions galore, commemorating such weighty matters as a downtown delicatessen’s anniversary, a pastor’s longevity, an elementary school graduation, a council member’s favorite retired teacher and a local musician unknown to millions.
Yet it can’t find a moment for Leon Swain Jr.
Now what does that tell you?
Correction: My March 24 column, “A boon for landowners, a bust for D.C.,” gave the wrong address for land owned by D.C. developer Douglas Jemal that could become part of an eminent domain proceeding. The property is at 1620 South Capitol St. and Half Street.