Finally, a foe for Ron Machen, the District’s reigning legal champ. The news last month that politically wired Chinatown restaurateur Tony Cheng and his son were being charged with bribery was notable, but the real intrigue was that, unlike most people charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in its ongoing District corruption soap opera, they weren’t pleading guilty.
When the Chengs were arraigned Monday, though, things weren’t so exciting. Each pleaded not guilty to charges that they bribed then-D.C. Taxicab Commission Chairman Leon Swain and an undercover FBI agent for help starting two cab companies. There wasn’t even a perp walk.
It turns out that fighting the charges just isn’t as flashy as the usual show: confessing misdeeds and hustling to a waiting SUV. In the meantime, here’s something to consider, and, if you’re one of the many local politicians who is tight with Cheng, sweat over.
After the hearing, one of the elder Cheng’s attorneys talked about the FBI’s evidence. The FBI’s video and audio recordings don’t just feature the Chengs allegedly bribing Swain; they feature them talking about elected officials, according to attorney Kenneth M. Robinson.
The Chengs saw the evidence in January, according to Robinson, and didn’t think it would be enough to convict them. But their reactions to the tapes were apparently significant enough that the U.S. Attorney’s Office wants to introduce the interviews as evidence.
The tapes could embarrass some local politicians. Robinson wouldn’t say who is named on the tapes, fearing the wrath of Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle. There are some clues, though: Robinson says investigators wanted Cheng to implicate Mayor Vince Gray or a member of the D.C. Council.
That doesn’t exactly narrow the list. The feds targeted Cheng because he was so well-connected, according to his attorney. “Everyone in government knows that every politician knows Mr. Cheng,” Robinson says.
No kidding. Since launching his Chinatown restaurant in 1986, Cheng has played a hand in several of the District’s minor intrigues: attempting to negotiate the end of a Ward 8 carryout protest, trying to find a post-mayoralty job for Marion Barry in the ’90s. His businesses have also been a frequent site for fundraisers for District politicians. “He’s probably done them for every mayor,” Robinson says.
In an effort to find out what makes Cheng so plugged into the District’s politics, LL took Washington City Paper’s food editor, Jessica Sidman, to Tony Cheng’s Mongolian Restaurant at 619 H St. NW. Cheng also operates a seafood restaurant upstairs, but prosecutors say he offered Swain a bribe in the ground-floor Mongolian barbecue.
The meal—heavy on meat and light on flavor—makes an effective existential argument for Sriracha sauce (sadly, none was on hand). LL is also pretty sure he got a piece of bone. José Andrés, this ain’t.
So if he wasn’t pleasing their stomachs, maybe Cheng offered something else to area politicians. Cheng’s reputation as the “representative of Chinatown” made him attractive to candidates, according to a former local Democratic staffer who would only talk anonymously, given the federal attention: "It was good for him, and it was good for the candidates to ensure that they had diversity."
Now that Cheng finally has a starring role in his own scandal, some of those officials probably wish they hadn’t been so close, after all.
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