Georgia’s Broad Racketeering Law May Now Ensnare Donald Trump

In 2013, Fani Willis assumed the role of lead prosecutor in a historic criminal trial that took place in Georgia. The case revolved around allegations of widespread cheating on standardized tests by teachers and administrators in the Atlanta public school system. A comprehensive report commissioned by the Governor of Georgia confirmed that a significant number of educators, including over three dozen principals and a superintendent, were involved in organized and systemic misconduct dating back to at least 2001.

According to investigators, teachers were providing students with answers and altering incorrect responses on the tests, while administrators were offering financial incentives to those who participated in the cheating and punishing those who resisted. One teacher, who confessed to changing test answers, likened the atmosphere within the school system to that of a criminal organization.

The Fulton County district attorney’s office agreed with the severity of the allegations and proceeded to indict thirty-five educators and administrators on charges of conspiracy to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), a law historically associated with prosecuting Mafia figures. In her opening statement, Fani Willis elaborated on how the RICO charges could be applied in this case. She explained that, under RICO, a formal gathering like a sit-down dinner meeting was not necessary, but what mattered was that all involved parties were engaged in the same illegal activity with a common purpose. In this instance, the shared objective was to inflate test scores through illegal means.

In the aftermath of the cheating scandal in Atlanta’s public schools, the majority of the accused educators decided to accept plea deals. However, a group of twelve individuals opted to go to trial, and eleven of them were ultimately found guilty of participating in a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) conspiracy. Presently, six of those convicted are still appealing their cases. Among those charged was a principal accused of altering test answers, who was represented by Bruce Harvey, a renowned Atlanta criminal-defense attorney. The principal received two years of probation, and a witness claimed that the alterations were done with gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints. The principal asserted that she had made the changes to meet district-testing targets, which had an impact on whether schools would be closed.

Bruce Harvey questioned the appropriateness of using a RICO law to threaten teachers with prison time for trying to prevent school closures. He likened the situation to “mouseketeering” rather than traditional racketeering, which typically involves illegal money-making schemes. The federal RICO statute, introduced in 1970, allows prosecutors to apply severe penalties to individuals involved in a broader criminal enterprise, encouraging lower-level participants to cooperate and provide evidence against higher-ranking figures. The Georgia legislature introduced its own RICO statute in 1980, mainly targeting Black street gangs and what were considered “nontraditional conspiracies.”

However, unlike the federal law, the Georgia statute does not require prosecutors to demonstrate an underlying criminal enterprise but only the commission of various illegal acts to further a single criminal goal. This broad scope has led Georgia prosecutors to utilize the criminal RICO provision in major cases, and the state has become a notable hotspot for deploying this legal tactic. The generous nature of Georgia’s statute facilitates a “whirlpool effect” in prosecuting criminal conspiracies, where capturing one individual can draw others into the legal proceedings.

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