With his new charges in Georgia, former President Donald Trump joins a diverse group of defendants who’ve been ensnared by the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.
The state’s RICO law, as it’s known colloquially, has been used against various defendants since 1980, a decade after the federal RICO law was enacted. The list includes everyone from mobsters to musicians to teachers to, now, Trump and company. In Georgia, prosecutors can bring RICO charges against anyone found to have committed or aided in at least two crimes intent on helping an “enterprise.”
And Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’ affinity for RICO is no secret, as I wrote last August. Around that time, Willis said at a news conference that she’s a “fan of RICO” because it allows her to tell jurors a full story:
I’m a fan of RICO. I’ve told people that. And the reason that I am a fan of RICO is I think jurors are very, very intelligent. Some people don’t want to do jury service, but once they get there, we really find that they’re good citizens there, they’re very smart, they pay attention. They take these matters serious. But they want to know the whole story. They want to know what happened.
Willis has used the law to prosecute alleged street gangs, establishing a track record that includes RICO cases against popular rap rivals Young Thug and YFN Lucci. Her office brought RICO charges against eight members of an alleged gang just last week. And Willis also was involved in the RICO convictions of several Atlanta teachers charged in a cheating scandal involving standardized test scores.
But even before Willis’ rise as a prosecutor, the law’s repeated use against Black defendants has led to criticism that it’s disproportionately used to portray loosely affiliated groups of Black folks as organized crime syndicates, which allows prosecutors to tag people with more serious charges than they’d otherwise face if charged as individuals.
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis boasts of having ‘more RICO indictments in the last 18–20 months’ than the city has seen in a decade. Critics say that comes at a cost: RICO trials are expensive and time-consuming, contributing to a case backlog and, as defendants await trial, overcrowding at Fulton County’s jail.
Some of that criticism has come from Drew Findling, an attorney who has defended Atlanta rappers hit with RICO charges and is now representing Trump. Findling has denounced the use of Georgia’s racketeering law as “racist,” and I wrote earlier this year about my belief that he’s cynically trying to use his reputation for warring with Willis’ office to try to protect Trump.
But two things can be true at once: We can acknowledge that the breadth of Georgia’s RICO statutes appears to give prosecutors wide latitude to make dubious claims of criminality — particularly when it comes to Black suspects. And we can also acknowledge that RICO charges seem rather fitting for Trump and his co-defendants in this case.
Personally, I see this as a defining moment for Georgia’s RICO law. We’ve seen it used to target underprivileged Black suspects. It’s time to see it work against wealthy and well-connected white ones.
And it’s a bit of karmic justice that the indictment effectively places Trump in the same boat as criminal gangs. Republicans — particularly, Georgia Republicans — have portrayed such gangs as one of the greatest menaces to civil society. Willis’ indictment shows she doesn’t see Trump and the MAGA movement any differently.