Former president Donald Trump and 18 of his allies were charged in Georgia on Monday evening with a serious crime — racketeering — in connection with their efforts to overturn that state’s 2020 election results.
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 combine several alleged crimes — in this case, conspiracy to defraud the state, false statements and writings, impersonating a public officer, forgery, computer theft and dozens of others — into one racketeering charge that calls for up to 20 years in prison.
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“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 numerous 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.
Designed to prosecute a criminal enterprise, the law has also been used against gang leaders and human traffickers.
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. Her office currently 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, and Trump unleashed his allies to try to find fraud in the state. The indictment methodically lists Trump calls to at least six Georgia officials, his tweets with false statements about election fraud in Georgia, and his calls pressuring Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the results as “overt acts in furtherance of the conspiracy” to flip the outcome of the presidential vote in Georgia.
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.”
Among those alleged actions, prosecutors cited:
alleged false statements to the Georgia state legislature and high-ranking state officials, including Gov. Brian Kemp (R) and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R)creating fake electoral college documents the harassment and intimidation of election worker Ruby Freemanthe pressure Trump and his advisers put on Pence and top officials at the Justice Departmentand the “unlawful breach of election equipment in Georgia and elsewhere.”
“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.
Trump is charged with 13 counts, and 18 other defendants are accused of having worked to help him overturn the election results. They include a current state senator in Georgia, Trump lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, the former head of the Republican Party in Georgia and a man who allegedly showed up at election worker Freeman’s house and intimidated her.
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The earliest version of the Georgia law was enacted in the 1980s by a largely Democratic legislature, not long after the federal law was enacted. 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 an election. So was a county commissioner who tried to have his successor killed after losing the vote.