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Trump faces a RICO charge in Georgia. What is the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act?

Why Trump was charged under RICO Act
Why Donald Trump is facing a RICO charge originally meant for Mafia 05:28

The felony charges filed Monday against former President Donald Trump in Georgia are unlike any of the other 78 charges he was already facing in three separate cases around the country. The grand jury in Fulton County charged Trump and 18 of his allies under a law more commonly known for its use against organized crime, but that has far broader applications — the state's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, better known as RICO.

The grand jury indictment, which lists 41 total counts, including 13 against Trump, follows a two-and-a-half-year investigation by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis' office, and alleges a criminal enterprise that prosecutors say had the goal of overturning the state's 2020 election result. 

What are RICO charges in Georgia?

Georgia's RICO statute is considered to be more expansive in scope than the federal law from which it is derived. In Georgia, prosecutors are able to point to a range of organized or related attempts to engage in predicate acts or predicate crimes, which include everything from violent crimes such as murder or arson, to false statements and obstruction of justice.

"The racketeering statute does not look simply at a single crime, it tries to look at the big picture of view," said Morgan Cloud, a law professor at Emory University. 

In order to prove racketeering took place, Cloud said prosecutors must convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that at least two of the racketeering activities are related in terms of method, purpose, or victims. And in Trump's case, Cloud believes "the most important of those would be related in terms of goal or purpose, which was to overturn the 2020 presidential election in Georgia."

"It has to be not just one separate isolated event, but a series of interrelated actions," Cloud said. 

In order to convict under RICO, prosecutors have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there is an enterprise, which can range from a corporation to an informal group of individuals, who undertake criminal actions as part of a shared goal. 

That is why Trump is not the sole defendant charged for orchestrating the enterprise under the RICO statute. Multiple Trump allies, including Trump's former attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and so-called "fake electors" — supporters who signed an illegitimate version of the state's Electoral College vote — have also been charged for their roles in the racketeering scheme.

Who else faces RICO charges in the Georgia Trump indictment?

In addition to Trump and Giuliani, the indictment charges John Eastman and Kenneth Chesebro, conservative lawyers who authored legal memos for Trump; Mark Meadows, Trump's White House chief of staff; Jeffrey Clark, a former Justice Department official; Sidney Powell and Jenna Ellis, conservative lawyers who pushed baseless claims of voter fraud; and 11 others accused of various other roles in the alleged scheme.

The indictment also alleges the participation of 30 unindicted co-conspirators.

Georgia Grand Jury Delivers Indictment In 2020 Election Case
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney receives court documents on Aug. 14, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia. A grand jury delivered an indictment against former President Donald Trump and 18 others on charges including racketeering related to alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Megan Varner / Getty Images

The indictment points to a number of false claims made by Trump about the election in Georgia to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and two other state officials during a Jan. 2, 2021 phone call, including that nearly 5,000 dead people voted in the November presidential election, hundreds of thousands of ballots had been "dumped" into Fulton County and an adjacent county, and that Trump won the presidential election in the state by 400,000 votes.

According to the indictment, "by knowingly, willfully, and unlawfully making" false statements and representations to state officials, Trump committed a felony offense.  

Trump has repeatedly denied wrongdoing, and frequently described the conversation with Raffensperger as "an absolutely PERFECT phone call."

In a statement Monday night, attorneys for Trump criticized the investigation, saying "this one-sided grand jury presentation relied on witnesses who harbor their own personal and political interests."

"We look forward to a detailed review of this indictment which is undoubtedly just as flawed and unconstitutional as this entire process has been," said the attorneys, Drew Findling, Jennifer Little and Marissa Goldberg.

In addition, according to the indictment, unfounded claims of fraud and misconduct among state officials made by Giuliani during two appearances before the Georgia legislature are also considered racketeering activity, as was a "surprise visit" by Trump's White House chief of staff Mark Meadows to observe an audit of signatures on absentee ballot envelopes in Cobb County, Georgia. Meadows was ultimately denied access to the audit because it was not open to the public.

In a statement to CBS News, Giuliani said the indictment "is an affront to American Democracy and does permanent, irrevocable harm to our justice system," adding, "The real criminals here are the people who have brought this case forward both directly and indirectly."

An attorney for Meadows did not reply to a request for comment.

Willis's high-profile RICO history with Young Thug and others

"If there's any team of state prosecutors in the country that's going to be able to organize and present a racketeering statute prosecution in Georgia that's coherent and effective and understood by the jury, these are the people," Cloud said of Willis and her team ahead of the Trump indictment. "I personally would be surprised if she did not pursue racketeering claims based upon the facts and the law and her track record and her team's track record."

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks about the indictment of former President Donald Trump and 18 of his allies on Aug. 14, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia.  / Getty Images

Willis rose to prominence in the Atlanta area for trying another unusual RICO case that received national attention. As an assistant district attorney, she led the 2015 prosecution of 12 Atlanta Public School educators who were accused of conspiring to inflate students' results on standardized tests. All but one of the defendants were found guilty of racketeering and other crimes.

The 11 convicted included teachers, testing coordinators and other administrators who were accused of participating in a conspiracy dating to 2005, motivated by pressure to meet federal and local testing standards to receive bonuses or keep their jobs.

"The reason that I am a fan of RICO is, I think jurors are very, very intelligent," Willis told reporters at an August 2022 press conference about a separate gang-related indictment brought by her office. "They want to know what happened. They want to make an accurate decision about someone's life. And so RICO is a tool that allows a prosecutor's office and law enforcement to tell the whole story."

Willis, who took office in 2021, is currently prosecuting a RICO case involving the chart-topping rapper Young Thug, whose name is Jeffrey Lamar Williams, and 28 others. The conspiracy charge dates back to 2013 and the gang charge to 2018. Young Thug is accused of being one of three founders of the Young Slime Life, "a criminal street gang that started in late 2012" in Atlanta, the indictment says. He has pleaded not guilty.

While several defendants have pleaded guilty in that case, there are six others who will be tried separately. Eight defendants are currently on trial, and jury selection has dragged on for months. The trial is expected to be the longest in Georgia history.

A RICO case unlike any other

While RICO cases are not anything new in Fulton County, pursuing such a case against a former president is unprecedented. 

"We are in deeply uncharted territory," Georgia State University law professor Anthony Michael Kreis told CBS News prior to the indictment. "Applying [RICO] in the election law setting is very new. That is something that we haven't seen in Georgia before, and it hasn't really happened elsewhere before."

The investigation dates back to shortly after Trump's recorded Jan. 2, 2021 phone call with Raffensperger. 

In 2022, the district attorney's office impaneled a special purpose grand jury to investigate the case. It had the power to issue subpoenas and produce a final report with charging recommendations, but could not issue indictments. Over the course of six months in 2022, it interviewed 75 witnesses. 

Portions of the report released to the public in February said a "majority of the Grand Jury believes that perjury may have been committed by one or more witnesses testifying before it," and recommended that the district attorney seek "appropriate indictments."

This case in Fulton County is already proving to be different in several significant ways from the federal trials he's facing. First, if reelected in 2024, Trump would not be able to pardon himself on state criminal charges as he may be able to do in the federal prosecutions.

The other big difference is that the courthouse in Fulton County allows cameras inside the courtroom to broadcast the proceedings, while federal courts do not. Kreis believes the ability to watch would be  crucial to democracy, "so that people understand exactly what happened here in Georgia and throughout the country in the aftermath of 2020 elections, and that they're able to see the evidence for themselves and to understand the kind of damage that Donald Trump and his allies did."

Security barriers outside the Fulton County courthouse in Atlanta
Security barriers line the sidewalk in front of the Lewis R. Slaton Courthouse in Atlanta, Georgia, on July 31, 2023.  ELIJAH NOUVELAGE/AFP via Getty Images

Trump and Giuliani have denied all allegations of wrongdoing related to the aftermath of the 2020 election. Trump has repeatedly criticized Willis, accusing her of investigating him for political gain.

"I make decisions in this office based on the facts and the law," Willis told reporters following the indictment. "The law is completely nonpartisan. That's how decisions are made in every case. To date, this office has indicted, since I've been sitting as the district attorney, over 12,000 cases. This is the 11th RICO indictment. We followed the same process. We look at the facts. We look at the law, and we bring charges."

–Nikole Killion contributed reporting for this story.

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