Of the 23 Bethel residents charged with illegally selling alcohol, or bootlegging, last week, 18 are current or former cab drivers. Ten are from Taxi/Alaska, seven are from Quyana Cab, and one is from Kusko Cab. In a conversation with KYUK, Quyana denies all allegations. Kusko Cab says that their one driver has been fired, and Taxi/Alaska has not returned phone calls requesting comment.
Before Bethel opened a liquor store in early 2016, the rumor was that if you wanted booze, call a cab. State Troopers had also heard the rumors for years.
When the Troopers started investigating , they found records of many large alcohol orders to Bethel made by cab drivers. So in December 2015 three Troopers went undercover, riding in cabs, asking to buy booze.
According to charging documents filed Friday, the rumors were true.
Over the course of two years, officers bought 47 bottles of alcohol using on-duty cab drivers. None of the drivers were licensed to sell alcohol, and for many of those months, alcohol sales in Bethel were illegal.
Then in June 2016, Bethel and the cab community learned that something was up.
Trooper SUVs swarmed Bethel’s Trailer Court neighborhood, where many Quyana and Taxi/Alaska drivers live. Officers issued search warrants, handcuffed suspects, and confiscated tens-of-thousands of dollars in cash, as well as alcohol order forms and large quantities of liquor.
Charging documents don’t list any of these items in the trailer of Min Cha, co-owner of Quyana Cab. The company has been charged, and Cha herself is facing five counts of selling alcohol without a license. She denies the allegations.
“No way. I’m not that kind of person," Cha said. "No, no.”
According to the documents, in one instance when an undercover officer asked Cha is she could get him a bottle of R&R Whiskey, Cha said no. Then she said “selling alcohol is dangerous business.” Cha then asked the officer if she had helped him to score before. The officer said "yes." Cha replied that “she could not remember because she has helped so many people to score before.”
In a later charge, the documents say that after helping another undercover officer make a purchase, Cha repeatedly asked if the officer was undercover.
Cha lives with her fiancé, and fellow Quyana Cab driver and road manager, Woo Yoon. He doesn’t appear in the charging documents. Both Cha and Yoon say that they’ve never ordered alcohol shipped to Bethel.
"Never order," Cha said. "Never order," repeated Yoon. "If we don’t order, how can we selling [sic] to the people?" he asked.
Yoon says that he’s fired two drivers in the past for bootlegging, but that was before the raid.
He says that neither of the drivers he fired are on the list of those charged. Of the seven Quyana Cab drivers on that list, he says that three now work for Taxi/Alaska.
Cha says that she knows her drivers. She trusts them. They don’t sell alcohol.
Nami Shabani, co-owner of Kusko Cab, says that an owner can’t completely know what their drivers are doing.
“Cab companies don’t have employees. All of the drivers are independent contractors,” he explained.
Drivers have their own vehicles, and the companies own cab permits, which drivers rent.
“So it would be very difficult," Shabani said, "for management to know precisely what that driver was up to, unless enough complaints and attention is brought to that specific driver.”
Shabani didn’t know about the alleged activities of the single Kusko Cab driver charged in this case until a Trooper approached him during the raid last June. He immediately fired the driver. He says that it sent a clear message to the other drivers in the company.
“Once you terminate someone immediately upon finding out what they’ve done," Shabani said, "I believe that’s the most extreme method of disciplinary action that I, as a small business owner, can make.”
Shabani, Cha, and Yoon said that the raid made a difference. Before, customers would call all the time asking for alcohol. Afterwards, the calls quieted.
“Everything’s died. Bootlegging has died. We don’t need to report," said Cha, referring to before the raid when Cha and Yoon said that they'd frequently report bootlegging by cab drivers of other companies, but not their own.
In the five counts against Cha, the charging documents never say that she produced alcohol from her cab. The undercover officer would ask for booze, she’d make a phone call, and then meet up with another driver or go to a residence. The cash always went to the other person; Cha and Yoon say that their job is to drive.
"They want to go, then I go," said Cha. Yoon added, "If customer want to go that house, even though that house is a bootlegger house, we go!"
All charges against the drivers are Class A Misdemeanors. If convicted, the maximum penalty is one year in jail and a $25,000 fine. The maximum penalty for a business, like Quyana Cab, convicted of selling alcohol without a license is a $500,000 fine.