FBI- October 2, 2009 — Thirty-Nine Individuals Charged with Conspiring to Bribe Chair of D.C. Taxicab Commission Published by News Room October 3rd, 2009 in Featured. They gave a District official an envelope stuffed with $14,000. They passed along $60,000 in a shopping bag. At one point, one of the men dropped a $3,000 bribe, tucked inside a folded newspaper, into the official’s car, federal law enforcement officials say.
WASHINGTON—Yitbarek Syume, 51, of Silver Spring, Maryland, Berhane Leghese, 47, of Arlington, Virginia, and Amanuel Ghirmazion, 53, of Hyattsville, Maryland, were indicted on bribery charges on October 1, 2009, by a grand jury sitting in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, announced Acting United States Attorney Channing D. Phillips and FBI Assistant Director in Charge Joseph Persichini, Jr.
The indictments, unsealed today, allege that Syume, Leghese, and Ghirmazion, conspired to bribe the Chairperson of the District of Columbia Taxicab Commission, who was working with the government in an undercover capacity, to obtain licenses for multi-vehicle taxicab company licenses. According to the indictment, the defendants made a series of bribe payments to the Chairperson totaling approximately $220,000. If convicted, Syume, Leghese, and Ghirmazion each face up to five years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to $250,000.
Acting United States Attorney Phillips and FBI Assistant Director in Charge Persichini further announced that 37 individual taxicab drivers were also indicted on bribery charges on October 1, 2009, by a grand jury sitting in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. The indictments, unsealed today, charge that the defendants conspired with the chairperson of the District of Columbia Taxicab Commission to obtain individual taxicab operator licenses. According to the indictment, the taxicab drivers made a series of bribe payments to the Chairperson totaling approximately $110,000. If convicted, the defendants each face up to five years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to $250,000.
“The allegations contained in these indictments are serious—describing alleged corrupt activities at the heart of our taxicab industry—and reflect our determination to root out corruption in our government,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Phillips. “Working closely with the FBI, we will continue to investigate this matter fully.”
“Licensing of drivers isn’t just about money and bribes, it’s about how safe you are when you get in a taxicab in downtown Washington,” added Joseph Persichini Jr., Assistant Director of the FBI’s Washington Field Office.
The indictments were the result of a two-year long, wide-sweeping investigation into the taxicab industry in Washington, D.C. Twenty-seven defendants have been arrested so far pursuant to the indictments in this case, and five search warrants have been executed. The cases will be prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys John Crabb Jr. and John Griffith.
An Indictment is merely a formal charge that a defendant has committed a violation of criminal laws and every defendant is presumed innocent until, and unless, proven guilty.
Details are still fairly scarce as the federal taxicab investigation develops, but this much is clear: Most of those targeted are members of the East African community.
First came revelations that the man who bribed D.C. Council aide Ted Loza was none other than Abdul Kamus (pictured), a man this paper once hailed as the “de facto leader of D.C.’s Ethiopian community.” Kamus’ links to Loza’s boss, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, are deep.
From the 2004 WCP article by Jonathan O’Connell:
On Sept. 16, [2004,] Kamus held a press conference in front of Dukem, a U Street Ethiopian restaurant, to request better police protection for African-owned businesses on the thoroughfare….At 1:30 p.m., a cream-colored Volkswagen Beetle convertible pulled up and Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham emerged, sporting a slight sunburn.
Graham had just returned from a five-week trip to Ethiopia, for which Kamus had arranged his travel and lodging. Graham, as well as his director of multicultural policy and community relations, Ted Loza, had spent the trip gathering a better understanding of Ethiopian culture. Upon following Kamus to the podium, Graham said “Tena yestelgn”—a greeting in Amharic, Ethiopia’s primary language. Kamus and the restaurant owners beamed.
Recently, Loza said he had never heard from an African-immigrant advocate before Kamus arrived. “He came to D.C., he asked the right questions, and [he] isn’t afraid to ask,” Loza said.
Kamus’ lobbying of Graham has paid off in big ways for the Ethiopian community. In March, after Metro fired about 30 Ethiopian parking-lot attendants after discovering millions of dollars in parking revenue was missing, Kamus complained to Graham, a Metro board member. Graham forcefully defended the fired Ethiopians at a press conference.
With Graham’s support, Kamus has tackled a variety of issues related to Ethiopian welfare in D.C. One of his greatest accomplishments was the April passage of the Language Access Act. Submitted by Graham, the law requires the city to provide translation services in Amharic. Kamus has since lobbied for the city to create a mayoral commission to serve the African refugee community, noting that the mayor currently has an nine-member Office on Latino Affairs and a five-member Office on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs.
Since then, Kamus (pronounced CAH-moo) has maintained his preeminent place in the city’s Ethiopian culture. And, with taxi driving being a central part of that culture, it’s no surprise he’d have a hand in that business.
Then there’s Yitbarek Syume, who owns and operates both Jet Cab and United Fleet Management, a company that installs taximeters and does mechanic and body work for independent drivers. That outfit was named last week in a search warrant served to search Loza’s office. This afternoon, LL stopped by UFM’s headquarters in Eckington to find the premises vacant save for a single mechanic, who said Syume had left for the day.
But these business connections aren’t exclusively Ethiopian: Washington Post reporter Del Wilber reports this afternoon that ‘FBI agents Friday morning raided the home of Causton Toney in Northwest Washington, according to a law enforcement source.’
Toney, a D.C. Taxi Commission chair, is a partner with Syume in UFM and Jet Cab. He has not been charged.
File photo by Darrow Montgomery