Trump charged in election case under a law designed to nab Mafia bosses. Will it work?

 WASHINGTON − A Grammy-winning rapper. A group of cheating public school teachers. And now, Donald Trump.

In charging the former president with election fraud late Monday, Georgia prosecutor Fani Willis relied in part on the state's RICO law − a provision that, at the federal level, was created to target organized crime and that could significantly shape how the case against Trump unfolds. Willis, the Fulton County District Attorney, has had success in the past using Georgia's version of that law to target crimes that most Americans wouldn't associate with the Mafia.

RICO statutes, shorthand for Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, let prosecutors seek higher sentences. In Georgia, those crimes carry a minimum five-year prison sentence and up to 20 years. They also require prosecutors to show a pattern of criminal activity − involving several people − rather than an isolated crime. That could allow Willis to lay out a broad case against Trump's inner circle and those who tried to keep in power.

The 41-count indictment handed up by a grand jury Monday charged Trump and 18 of his allies with crimes related to their effort to overturn the election by leaning on officials in Georgia to "find" enough votes for him to win the state. Among those facing charges under RICO are Trump, Rudy Giuliani and former Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.

Live updates:Donald Trump indicted on 2020 election fraud charges in Georgia

The indictment lists 161 acts that prosecutors said Trump and his allies took to further the conspiracy.  It marked the fourth time the former president has been criminally charged. But it's the first time Trump is facing charges under a RICO statute. The Trump campaign on Monday condemned the charges as politically motivated.

Praise, pushback for 'innovative' use of RICO

It's not the first time Willis has brought RICO charges under the Georgia version of that statute. Willis gained national attention for bringing RICO charges against dozens of teachers in the Atlanta public school district in 2013 for inflating students' scores. Several defendants struck plea agreements in that case. Eleven of 12 remaining educators who Willis brought to trial were convicted in 2015 and several served jail time.

"For someone experienced with RICO, this was an absolutely logical application of the statute," said Morgan Cloud, an Emory University law professor and expert on the state's law. "But for people unfamiliar, it seems like, 'What? You're calling teachers and administrators in schools racketeers?' That made no sense to lots of people."

Willis, Cloud said, has "been successful with that in the past in a very complicated, surprising, innovative application of the statute, to government employee activities."

Former US President Donald Trump is seen at the 16th hole during Round 3 at the LIV Golf-Bedminster 2023 at the Trump National in Bedminster, New Jersey on August 13, 2023.

She'll have to do so again, experts noted, to make the charges against Trump and his associates stick.

In another case, Willis last year secured RICO charges against rapper Young Thug, whose real name is Jeffery Lamar Williams. Williams has been accused of co-founding a street gang called Young Slime Life connected to several murders and shootings, according to prosecutors. That case has been pending for months. Last year Willis also filed RICO charges against members of a gang that prosecutors say have been responsible for high-profile burglaries in Atlanta.

Those cases have generated controversy because of Willis' use of rap lyrics as evidence. Willis has waved away that criticism.

"I think if you decide to admit your crimes over a beat, I’m going to use it," she told reporters last year.

Devin Franklin, an attorney for the Southern Center for Human Rights who spent 12 years in the Fulton County public defender’s office before leaving last year, told the Associated Press that using RICO has a tendency to "sensationalize the cases." Willis has said she likes to bring the cases, telling reporters last year that RICO is "a tool that allows a prosecutor's office and law enforcement to tell the whole story."

What are RICO charges? 'Very tough statute.'

President Richard Nixon signed the federal RICO provisions into law in 1970, part of an effort to give authorities the power to go after the heads of Mafia families who managed to insulate themselves from prosecution.

Before he became a personal attorney to Trump and was caught up in the investigations swirling around the former president, it was Giuliani who put a national spotlight on RICO statutes. The former U.S. attorney wielded that law to prosecute the leaders of several mob families in New York in the late 1980s.

Last year, Giuliani's attorneys acknowledged that he was a target of the Georgia probe. According to the indictment, Giuliani repeatedly made false statements about the outcome of the election as he attempted to persuade state lawmakers in several states to appoint electors who would support Trump.

Georgia's RICO law, adopted in 1980 and one of more than 30 similar state laws, gives prosecutors even more latitude than the federal statute, experts said. It allows prosecutors, for instance, to include federal crimes and offenses that took place in other states, so long as they can prove two crimes occurred in their jurisdiction.

J.Tom Morgan, a criminology professor at Western Carolina University and a former district attorney in DeKalb County, said RICO simply requires two crimes to have been committed by conspirators − known as predicate acts.

Former New York City Mayor and former personal lawyer for former President Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, leaves the U.S. District Court on May 19, 2023 in Washington, DC.  Two election workers, Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss of Fulton County, Georgia, sued Giuliani for defamation.

"When you boil it down, it’s a very tough statute," Morgan said. "You bring everything in, including the kitchen sink, in the indictment. In this case, you have many people working together to overthrow the election."

What the RICO indictments mean for Trump

Willis' election inquiry covered Trump's call on Jan. 2, 2021, to state Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, asking him to "find" enough votes for Trump to win the state. Trump has described the call as "perfect." Another major aspect of the indictment dealt with the Trump campaign recruiting an alternate slate of presidential electors, in an attempt to switch Georgia's results from President Joe Biden to Trump.

The 98-page indictment lays out a series of factual allegations, noting several meetings Trump had with state officials after the election, including one in the Oval Office in early December with the speaker of the Pennsylvania House in which the two discussed holding a special session of that state's legislature. It also notes the Jan. 2 phone call to Raffensperger.

In broad terms, the indictment accuses Trump and his aides of making false statements to state lawmakers in an effort to get them to appoint different presidential electors and soliciting Justice Department officials to make false statements to officials in Georgia.

For Trump, because of the potential for higher sentences, Willis' reliance on RICO raises the stakes. It also may take longer to resolve than the federal charges being shepherded by special counsel Jack Smith.

"She's really almost the opposite of Jack Smith. Jack Smith, I think is he's trying to keep it simple. And he wants a quick trial and a quick conviction," speculated Clark Cunningham, a law professor at Georgia State University. "Willis is probably prepared to have this case go past the general election."

If Trump wins that election, he said, "we may look at a situation where, here in Atlanta, we are conducting the criminal trial of a sitting president."

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, right, talks with a member of her team during proceedings to seat a special purpose grand jury in Fulton County, Georgia, on May 2, to look into the actions of former President Donald Trump and his supporters who tried to overturn the results of the 2020 election. The hearing took place in Atlanta.

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