Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.
Anti-racketeering laws were originally written to take down the mob. Now, they’re underpinning a criminal investigation of former President Donald Trump and his allies.
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is examining whether to apply the Georgia Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as Georgia RICO, to the Trump team’s attempts to reverse his 2020 electoral defeat in the state, according to a letter Willis circulated to local state officials and an on-the-record interview she gave to The New York Times.
The federal RICO statute—designed in 1970 to help prosecute organized crime mob bosses for illicit deeds committed by their underlings—is widely seen as too complex and convoluted for most prosecutions. Yet key differences between federal RICO and Georgia’s equivalent make the state’s version more flexible and easier to apply, lawyers say.
Willis has her work cut out for her. For years, experienced criminal attorneys have rolled their eyes at anyone using the words “Trump” and “RICO” in the same sentence, saying non-lawyers have little idea how tricky it is to meet the elaborate requirements for building such a case.
But Willis happens to be a Georgia RICO expert. Before the Trump investigation, she was best known for bringing a novel and high-profile racketeering case against teachers in Atlanta accused of organized cheating.
“RICO became kind of a joke among lawyers, because everyone thinks it’s RICO, and it’s never actually RICO,” said Ryan Locke, a former public defender in Georgia. But this time, he said, “I think it’s legit.”
A Trump spokesperson dismissed the idea that Trump did anything wrong and accused Willis of engaging in a transparent attempt to harass Trump.
“This is simply the Democrats’ latest attempt to score political points by continuing their witch hunt against President Trump, and everybody sees through it,” spokesman Jason Miller told VICE News.
Willis is investigating efforts by Trump and his allies to find ways to flip the state from a loss into a victory for Trump, after President Joe Biden carried Georgia by just 11,779 votes. On January 3, Trump called Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and urged him to help Trump “find” enough votes to win.
The call, which included Trump, Raffensperger, Trump’s White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, and multiple lawyers, was tape-recorded and then leaked to the media, including the Washington Post.
“All I want to do is this,” Trump told Raffensperger. “I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have, because we won the state.”
Trump reportedly also placed calls to Georgia’s governor, Brain Kemp, to pressure him to convince state legislators to overturn the state’s result and to the state’s attorney general, Chris Carr, in which Trump reportedly warned Carr not to interfere with legal attempts to secure Trump’s victory.
Willis’ probe will also scrutinize a phone call placed by Trump ally Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham to Raffensperger about ballot signature verification procedures, the Washington Post reported. Raffensperger told the Post that Graham appeared to be asking him to find ways to toss out legal ballots. Graham disputed that claim as “ridiculous.”
To land a RICO case, prosecutors would need to show multiple criminal acts that were all undertaken in furtherance of the same goal, Locke said.
“RICO really comes into play in a case where someone commits a number of crimes that all lead toward one common corrupt aim,” Locke said.
The original federal RICO statute was designed to make mob bosses accountable for crimes they ordered someone else to do, by letting prosecutors brand the entire organization as an ongoing criminal enterprise. After the federal law was passed, 33 states followed suit with their own versions. Since then, the applications of Georgia’s RICO law have expanded beyond traditional organized criminal networks.
“I always tell people when they hear the word racketeering, they think of ‘The Godfather,’” Willis told the Times. But the law can also be applied to different types of organizations besides the mafia, she said, including otherwise legitimate entity used toward illegitimate ends. “If you have various overt acts for an illegal purpose, I think you can—you may—get there.”
“The scope of its reach has now grown so that anyone who commits two or more proscribed crimes within a 10-year period in furtherance of an ongoing enterprise can find themselves charged with a RICO violation,” according to a description of the statute written by Georgia defense lawyer Tanya Miller.
Willis hasn’t explicitly laid out a theory of the case. But she told the Times that racketeering could apply to anyone who uses a legal entity, such as a government agency or a public office, in pursuit of breaking the law.
Technically speaking, she’d need to find two separate crimes to make a broader racketeering charge stick. But if she does, then the Georgia RICO statute carries a hefty prison sentence of between 5 and 20 years.
Before becoming DA in January, Willis was best known for leading a racketeering case against 12 public school teachers in Atlanta accused of falsifying their students’ scores on standardized tests to improve their schools’ standing. She argued that the teachers violated Georgia’s RICO law by using the school system, a “legitimate enterprise,” to engage in widespread cheating. Eleven educators were convicted.
That verdict showed how the law could be used in a complex public corruption case, when multiple instances of criminal activity are strung together under one big RICO umbrella. In the Trump case, she’s already pointed to a range of possible infractions.
In a letter to state officials asking them to preserve documents dated February 10, Willis laid out a series of criminal statutes she’s considering as part of the probe.
“This investigation includes, but is not limited to, potential violations of Georgia law prohibiting the solicitation of election fraud, the making of false statements to state and local governmental bodies, conspiracy, racketeering, violation of oath of office and any involvement in violence or threats related to the election’s administration,” she wrote.
Grand jury subpoenas may be sent out as soon as March, Willis wrote.
“This matter is of high priority,” she wrote. “The next Fulton County grand jury is due to convene in March, and this office will begin requesting grand jury subpoenas as necessary at that time.”