Growing up in Chicago, of course I knew about the Mob, the Outfit, the Family, Cosa Nostra. The Mafia. My city was so notorious for organised crime that when I first travelled to Europe back in the day and said that I was from Chicago, I was answered with a pretend machine gun.
In the early 1980s, in New York City, you could still “see” the Mafia. All you had to do was buy a paper and sometimes on the front page would be the picture of some guy sprawled under a restaurant table; his lunch spilled all over him; a cigar still in his mouth; and his body riddled with bullets.
What stopped these rub-outs was RICO: the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. This is a federal law that provides for extended criminal penalties, and even a civil cause of action, for “acts performed as part of an ongoing criminal organisation”. RICO also exists at the state level, having been adopted by over two-thirds of the nation.
Legend has it that RICO was named for the lament at the end of Little Caesar, the classic 1931 film based on Al Capone. Its star was Edward G Robinson, a rather urbane man who never managed to live down his portrayal of Caesar Enrico “Rico” Bandello, the fictional Capone figure. After he is gunned down before the movie ends, he cries out, “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?”
It sure was, but not the end of RICO. “Rico” meant the Mafia, and that was what RICO was and is intended to take down. But not just them: any organised criminal enterprise.
The first irony of RICO was that it was signed into law in 1970 by Richard Nixon who, because of Watergate, should have been subjected to it himself. The second is that Rudy Giuliani has now been indicted under it.
Rudy said once that the Mob used to come around to his house for what was, in effect, a “shakedown”, called by them a “contribution”, and he hated them for that. He was determined to make it clear to all that, just because you were of Italian descent, you were not a gangster.
After law school, and a career in the federal government, Giuliani was appointed US attorney for the southern district of New York, the highest-profile US attorney’s office in the land. You went for that job because you wanted to run for office, and Rudy got lots of publicity because he got lots of convictions under RICO.
He invented the “perp walk”, a speciality of RICO. What he would do was alert the media that a suspect was coming out after being arraigned, and the cameras and mics would be ready.
There is not enough room in this column to document his rise to mayor of New York City; how he was in office on 9/11; how he took his city and the nation through it with grace and dignity and strength. He was called “America’s mayor”, and there was talk of him running for president.
Then he fell into the poison well that is Donald J Trump, who, at present, has been indicted over 90 times.
Trump and 19 others, including Giuliani, have been indicted under the Georgia RICO law for racketeering. The charges say that Trump led a criminal enterprise, out to break the law. Kind of like John Gotti; known as “the Teflon Don” because nothing seemed to stick. Trump was like that, too, until recently. Until he said what he calls the “riggers” – a group of prosecutors who happen to be mostly African-American; I’m sure his name for them is just a coincidence – came for him.
Under RICO, Don the Con is considered no better than a mob boss, and Giuliani is just one of his “button men”; a “mook” whose legal bills The Donald now won’t even pay.
So what drove the Fulton County district attorney Fani T Willis to use RICO when indicting Trump and his associates? This is an example:
It is alleged that a former associate of Trump-supporting rapper and businessman Kanye West, one Trevian Kutti – named in the indictment – showed up at the house of Ruby Freeman, an election worker, an ordinary person who had been doing her civic duty of counting votes.
The RICO part comes in because Ms Kutti is alleged to have told Ms Freeman that she, Ms Kutti, worked for some of the “biggest names around”, and that maybe something in the future would affect Ms Freeman. The implication was that this “something” was bad. She said that she would help Ms Freeman avoid this.
Ms Freeman has told the press that Ms Kutti just talked over and over about election fraud and wanted her to admit to it.
What prosecutors say is that asking Ms Freeman to admit to fraud was part of the plot to overthrow the Georgia election, along with rounding up a slate of fake Trump electors as part of the electoral college, the vehicle that formally elects the president based on how the states have voted. These fake electors would certify fake results and gum up the works for years. That is 100% gangster stuff.
There were all sorts of unproven claims coming from Trump World: about fake mail-in ballots; dead people voting; illegal immigrants voting; foreign powers messing with the voting machines. There were claims affecting Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, New Mexico.
Federal and state judges threw the suits out, except for one state. And the pro-Trump lawyers were slammed down. As my sister says: “MAGA means ‘Make Attorneys Get Attorneys’.”
RICO is known as the prosecutor’s goldmine and the defence attorney’s nightmare. Convicted? You’re five years in the slammer before you even get heard on appeal. If you’re convicted of racketeering in the state of Georgia, you could face 20 years.
Willis is a racketeering expert who uses RICO. A lot.
She won a case that involved state school educators altering students’ tests. She is currently pursuing racketeering charges against two gangs.
Her indictment against Trump and associates alleges 40 acts that comprise criminal activity, ie racketeering. Rudy is right there in the thick of it. He might, in the end, echo the lament of Little Caesar:
“Mother of mercy, is this the end of Giuliani?”