Rudy Giuliani Pioneered RICO Prosecutions. Now He’s Charged in One

On February 25, 1985, Federal Bureau of Investigation agents fanned out across New York to arrest the heads of the city’s five Mafia families on charges brought by an ambitious young federal prosecutor.

(Bloomberg) — On February 25, 1985, Federal Bureau of Investigation agents fanned out across New York to arrest the heads of the city’s five Mafia families on charges brought by an ambitious young federal prosecutor. 

“This is a bad day, probably the worst ever, for the Mafia,” then-Manhattan US Attorney Rudy Giuliani said at the press conference announcing the sweep. 

The so-called “Commission” case, which eventually resulted in the conviction of three bosses and five other high-ranking mobsters, introduced much of the world to a relatively new and powerful federal law — the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO. Giuliani went on to wield RICO on Wall Street in cases against Michael Milken, Drexel Burnham Lambert and others.

But now Giuliani, the RICO pioneer, is a RICO defendant. Atlanta District Attorney Fani Willis on Monday night charged him, along with former President Donald Trump and 17 others, with conspiring to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election results. Willis’s case makes use of a state version of the federal RICO statute.

“It’s amazing,” said Nick Akerman, a prosecutor under Giuliani in the Manhattan US Attorney’s office in the 1980s. “He was a white-knight prosecutor.” 

Giuliani has denounced the Fulton County indictment, calling it “an affront to American Democracy.”

The federal RICO statute was enacted by Congress in 1970 specifically to target organized crime. Prosecutors for decades had been stymied by their inability to tie bosses to crimes committed by lower-level gangsters. 

“It was really hard to reach the people at the top of the criminal enterprise,” said Clark Cunningham, a criminal law expert at Georgia State College of Law. “They would put layers between themselves and the people who did the indictable crimes.”

RICO allowed prosecutors to charge mob bosses as heads of criminal enterprises and is widely credited with ending the sway the Mafia long held over US cities, New York in particular. 

Prosecuting Criminal Enterprises

Giuliani early on saw that the law could be used in non-mob cases as well. In 1983, he brought a RICO case alleging tax fraud against commodities trader Marc Rich, who fled to Switzerland until he was pardoned by President Bill Clinton in 2000. His threat to bring RICO charges against Drexel Burnham over alleged insider trading led the bank to plead guilty and agree to a $650 million fine in 1988.

The Georgia RICO statute, passed in 1980, is broader than the federal one, covering a wider swath of underlying unlawful activities that can be considered part of the criminal enterprise. Willis recently used the racketeering law to win convictions against Atlanta school officials accused of falsifying test scores. 

Cunningham said there’s a history of Georgia prosecutors bringing RICO cases against public officials seeking to hold on to power. In one early challenge to the state statute, the Georgia Supreme Court held in 1984 that it covers alleged criminal efforts “to acquire or maintain control of any governmental entity.” 

Pressing a sprawling racketeering case does carry risks, Cunningham said. Prosecuting multiple people in a single case — let alone 19 — will simply take longer, he said, and that’s not accounting for some of the unique legal challenges that Trump could raise. For instance, Trump might argue to move the case to federal court because he was serving as president at the time of the alleged offenses. Such an argument could tie the case up for years with appeals that could potentially reaching the US Supreme Court, Cunningham said. 

Read More: The Trump Allies Charged in Georgia: Giuliani to Meadows

Even if Trump ends up in federal court, that won’t stop Willis from pressing the racketeering charge — the most serious in terms of possible prison time — against the other defendants, Cunningham said. The RICO charge carries a maximum prison term of 20 years.

Giuliani’s success with RICO cases against the Mafia and Wall Street made him a national figure and cleared the way for him to run for New York mayor, an office he won in 1993. He achieved his greatest fame as “America’s Mayor” when he led the city during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The moderate image Giuliani cultivated as New York mayor quickly faded, though, after he announced his support for Trump in the 2016 election. He became Trump’s personal lawyer during Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian election interference and continued in that capacity during the 2020 election. Giuliani was front-and-center in arguing that votes had been stolen from Trump.

At a November 19, 2020, press conference in Washington, the former prosecutor appeared alongside lawyers Sidney Powell and Jenna Ellis in describing outlandish instances of supposed voter fraud.

“This is real. This is not made up,” Giuliani told the gathered reporters. “I know crimes, I can smell ‘em.”

Ellis and Powell are also among the defendants in the Georgia RICO case. Powell didn’t respond to a request for comment. Ellis has denied wrongdoing in social media posts.

In addition to Willis’s indictment, Giuliani is also facing disbarment proceedings in New York and Washington as well as several lawsuits over his role in pushing false election-fraud claims.

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