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RICO, the Georgia anti-racketeering law used to charge Donald Trump

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Former president Donald Trump and 18 of his allies were charged in Georgia Monday evening with a serious crime — racketeering — in connection with their efforts to overturn that state’s election results in 2020.

Here’s what that means and how such a law might be used:

You’ll see it referred to as RICO. It allows prosecutors to weave together several alleged crimes into one racketeering charge that calls for up to 20 years in prison.

“It allows a lot of different things to be pulled together into a single very serious criminal charge,” said Clark Cunningham, a law professor at Georgia State University.

Fani T. Willis is the top prosecutor for Georgia’s Fulton County, which is home to Atlanta. She’s a Democrat elected to the job in 2020, and soon after she took office she launched an investigation of Trump’s attempts to overturn the election results in her state.

The indictment approved on Monday describes the former president and 18 co-defendants as “a criminal organization whose members and associates engaged in various related criminal activities” to try to change the election results. Its introductory pages cite a litany of alleged offenses by Trump and his advisers and supporters, including “false statements and writings, impersonating a public officer, forgery, filing false documents, influencing witnesses, computer theft, computer trespass, computer invasion of privacy, conspiracy to defraud the state, acts involving theft, and perjury.”

Willis had strongly signaled she would use the RICO law to seek charges against Trump and his associates. In an interview with The Washington Post last year, she said she likes applying the RICO statute because it “allows you to tell jurors the full story.”

“I have right now more RICO indictments in the last 18 months, 20 months, than were probably done in the last 10 years out of this office,” Willis said.

Or gang leaders or human traffickers — the law is designed to prosecute a criminal enterprise.

When people “hear the word ‘racketeering,’ they think of ‘The Godfather,’” Willis told the New York Times. But the concept of racketeering “has been extended to include any kind of organization that engages in a pattern of prohibited criminal activity to accomplish its goals,” Cunningham said. So this could be applied, legal experts theorize, to the collection of lawyers, political operatives and Republican legislators who tried to overturn the results in Georgia, allegedly at Trump’s behest.

The federal version of RICO was used in the 1980s to prosecute mob bosses who weren’t the ones directly committing the crimes but rather the orchestrators of a broader scheme. For example, Nick Akerman, a lawyer and former prosecutor, wrote in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he was able to tie a murder plot in California and an extortion plot in Brooklyn to bankruptcy fraud in New York to take down a mob boss. Akerman wrote that Trump and his allies’ alleged attempt to undermine the peaceful transfer of power “fits neatly” under Georgia’s RICO law.

It allows prosecutors to weave together a wide variety of alleged crimes, including violations of state and federal laws — and even activities in other states. To make a racketeering case, prosecutors need at least two underlying potential crimes in the furtherance of an enterprise. The law does not require a defendant to set foot in Georgia to be charged.

Willis has practice using RICO in creative ways. A decade ago, she was part of a team that prosecuted schoolteachers in a standardized-test cheating scandal. Right now, her office is prosecuting rapper Young Thug on racketeering charges related to alleged gang activity.

In many ways, Georgia was the center of the Trump campaign’s attempt to keep him in power after he lost the 2020 presidential election.

Trump unleashed his allies to try to find fraud in the state. In the weeks after the election, Georgia’s governor, its secretary of state and top aides — all of them Republican — publicly talked about the intimidation they received from Trump supporters after they resisted efforts to change the election results. “Stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence,” Gabriel Sterling, a top Georgia election official (and a Republican) publicly pleaded to Trump. “Mr. President,” he said, “you have not condemned these actions or this language.”

Trump called top officials himself. After Joe Biden’s win in Georgia was certified, Trump called the secretary of state, Republican Brad Raffensperger, and asked him to find enough examples of fraudulent votes to overcome his margin of loss.

The racketeering law in Georgia requires all these actions to be taken in furtherance of a scheme. His objective was “clear,” Caren Morrison, a former federal prosecutor now at Georgia State University, said of Trump, in an interview before the indictment was handed up. “Maintain the presidency by any objective possible.”

Prosecutors in Fulton County said the racketeering conspiracy charged in the first count involved all 19 defendants and activities not only in Georgia but also Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and D.C.

Trump’s co-defendants include lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, law professor John Eastman and former chief of staff Mark Meadows. The indictment also mentions 30 unindicted co-conspirators.

“Defendant Donald John Trump lost the United States presidential election held on November 3, 2020. One of the states he lost was Georgia. Trump and the other Defendants charged in this Indictment refused to accept that Trump lost, and they knowingly and willfully joined a conspiracy to unlawfully change the outcome of the election in favor of Trump,” the indictment’s one-paragraph introduction says.

Prosecutors cited alleged false statements to the Georgia state legislature and high-ranking state officials, including Gov. Brian Kemp (R) and secretary of state Raffensperger (R); the creation of false electoral college documents in a Dec. 14, 2020, meeting at the Georgia Capitol; the harassment and intimidation of election worker Ruby Freeman; the pressure Trump and his advisers put on former vice president Mike Pence and top officials at the Justice Department; and the “unlawful breach of election equipment in Georgia and elsewhere.”

In the weeks following the election, Kemp, Raffensperger and other state officials — all of them Republican — publicly talked about the intimidation they received from Trump supporters after they resisted efforts to change the election results.

Georgia election workers from the secretary of state on down testified to the congressional Jan. 6 committee about the threats they faced for doing their jobs.

The earliest version of the Georgia law was enacted in the 1980s by a largely Democratic legislature, not long after the federal law came into being. Legislators at the time cited “the increasing sophistication of various criminal elements” for the need to have such a serious crime on the books. It has been expanded over the years to include potential digital criminal activity.

Some of the first prosecutions in the state were against politicians: Georgia’s labor commissioner was convicted of racketeering for efforts to stay in office after he lost the election. So was a county commissioner who tried to have his successor killed after losing the vote.

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