Georgia District Attorney’s Investigation into Trump and Associates
Georgia’s district attorney, Fani Willis, initiated an investigation involving former President Donald Trump following the release of a recording featuring a phone call between Trump and Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Secretary of State, in January 2021.
During this call, Trump suggested that Raffensperger, a Republican and the state’s highest election official, could assist in uncovering the votes needed to overturn his narrow defeat to Joe Biden. Over two years later, a grand jury presented an indictment on Monday, extending beyond the phone call and accusing Trump and associates of various crimes.
Willis employed Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) law to charge Trump and others with engaging in a wide-reaching conspiracy to overturn the state’s 2020 election outcomes.
Understanding RICO and Its Application to Trump and Allies
Originating in 1970 as a federal tool to combat organized crime, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act empowered prosecutors to target individuals in authoritative positions within criminal organizations, not just lower-level operatives. However, its application was not solely restricted to organized crime.
In the years following the federal law’s enactment, states began enacting their own RICO statutes.
A 1989 US Supreme Court opinion recognized that the law was formulated “broadly enough to encompass a wide range of criminal activity, taking many different forms and likely to attract a broad array of perpetrators.”
In essence, RICO laws empower prosecutors to charge multiple individuals who commit separate offenses while working towards a shared objective. This legal framework offers a mechanism to address intricate criminal activities, even beyond the realm of organized crime.
Understanding Georgia’s RICO Law
What does Georgia’s RICO law entail? Established in 1980, Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act criminalizes involvement in, acquisition of, or control maintenance over an “enterprise” through a consistent “pattern of racketeering activity,” including conspiring to do so. It is important to note that a RICO charge can be applicable even if the alleged scheme didn’t succeed.
The term “enterprise” can encompass an individual or a collective of associated individuals with shared objectives.
The phrase “racketeering activity” encompasses committing, attempting, or inciting someone else to commit any of the more than thirty state crimes listed within the law.
To meet the criteria of a “pattern of racketeering activity,” at least two such acts are required. This implies that prosecutors must demonstrate that an individual has committed two or more correlated criminal actions as part of their involvement in an enterprise to secure a RICO conviction.
While the US Supreme Court has stipulated that federal RICO claims should exhibit continuity, indicating a sequence of linked underlying actions over an extended duration—not merely weeks or months—the Georgia Supreme Court has clarified that this requirement is not applicable under state law.
Why Opt for the RICO Statute?
Expressing her favor for the RICO statute, Fani Willis shared her sentiment during a news conference in August 2022 while announcing a RICO indictment against a group of alleged gang members. Willis has highlighted that jurors seek comprehensive insights into an alleged crime, and a RICO indictment empowers prosecutors to present a comprehensive narrative of all suspected unlawful activities.
Through a narrative approach, prosecutors can craft a story enriched with intricate details that might not be directly connected to specific offenses but play a crucial role in portraying the larger alleged scheme.
RICO charges also carry substantial potential sentences that can be imposed alongside penalties for the underlying actions. In Georgia, a felony conviction under RICO can lead to a prison term ranging from five to 20 years, a fine of $25,000 or triple the monetary gains from the criminal acts, whichever is greater, or both a prison sentence and a fine.
Navigating Challenges with the RICO Statute
J Tom Morgan, who employed the Georgia RICO statute to prosecute a corrupt sheriff while serving as the district attorney in DeKalb County, outlines a challenge in explaining RICO law and its mechanisms to jurors. He underscores that while terms like murder, rape, and theft are widely understood, RICO is not part of everyday vocabulary. “You don’t see a RICO charge on a television show about crime,” he points out.
Willis’s Proficiency in RICO Cases
During her tenure as an assistant district attorney in the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office, Willis took a leading role in prosecuting a RICO case involving Atlanta public school educators entangled in a cheating scandal. In a lengthy trial, a jury convicted 11 former educators of racketeering in April 2015, pertaining to their involvement in inflating students’ standardized exam scores.
Since assuming the role of district attorney in January 2021, Willis has initiated multiple RICO indictments against alleged gang members, including well-known rap artists.
Collaboration with Legal Expertise
Prominent RICO expert, lawyer John Floyd based in Atlanta, collaborated with Willis on the school cheating case. As she commenced an investigation into potential illicit interference in Georgia’s 2020 election, she enlisted his expertise to serve as a special assistant district attorney, aiding in potential racketeering cases her office might pursue.