City Desk

Leon Swain: Taxicab Whistleblower Hero

1002swainToday, federal agents busted dozens of cab drivers and owners in what looks to be a wide-ranging corruption probe. At the center of the investigation is D.C. Taxicab Commission chair Leon Swain Jr., who has headed the commission since July 2007.

Court documents indicate that Swain's cooperation with authorities was what launched this probe and ultimately made this case. Unknown, at this point, is whether his motivations to turn in these alleged bribers was rooted in a sense of justice and fair play or in something else.

[UPDATE, 3:45 P.M.: "He was with us from the start," says Ben Friedman, spokesperson for the U.S. attorney.]

Here is one of his former colleagues' reactions: "Good for him!" said Tom Heinemann, who served on the commission until May. "I knew he was a good guy."

Another fact about Swain: He was an 18-year-veteran cop, who did a stint on leading the city vice squad in the mid-1980s. And back in 1981, he was on the police detail protecting President Ronald Reagan when he was shot by would-be assassin John Hinckley—he received commendations for his efforts there. In his taxicab duties, he's been known as a law-and-order type.

The allegations aired today—that drivers approached Swain and tried to bribe him to issue taxi licenses—are eerily similar to a 1992 bust, shortly after Swain was named to the Taxicab Commission by Mayor Sharon Pratt. In that scandal, the executive director of the commission was accused of illicitly selling licenses to drivers. Said Swain at the time to the Washington Post: 'It's a shame what's happened....It's an embarrassment to the commission. But [the investigation] gives us a chance to get an unobstructed view of what's going on as far as the allegations of corruption are concerned."

Swain left the commission four years later, after he crossed the then-chairman, leading councilmembers to move to prevent his reappointment. He told the Post: "My only crime is I enlightened the council and the public as to the criminal activity going on within the taxi industry."

He then served as an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Congress Heights, before being nominated in 2007 to chair the taxi commission by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.

Swain, says one fellow DCTC nominee, was put in by Fenty to clean house at a body charged with regulating a notorious industry—a body with a somewhat notorious reputation itself.

"It was clear that the mayor wanted him to go in and clean up a messy, corrupt cab system," says Dale Leibach, a PR consultant and ex-husband for former Ward 3 councilmember Kathy Patterson whose nomination was held up and ultimately killed by the D.C. Council. "He was very open about some of the cab companies using threats and coercion and that it would be important to stay together as a group to get some things changed."

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