Former President Donald Trump was indicted Monday on racketeering, a charge once reserved for mob bosses and drug kingpins that prosecutors are now using to tackle political corruption.
Trump, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and several others are accused of trying to steal Georgia’s electoral votes from President Joe Biden after the 2020 election. The Georgia grand jury returned a 41-count indictment against 19 people whom prosecutors say played some role in the scheme. Trump’s campaign denounced the charges, calling them a political attack from a “rabid partisan” prosecutor.
Racketeering conspiracy or RICO was the federal charge leveled against ex-Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and his allies in the Statehouse’s largest corruption scandal: a $60 million pay-to-play scheme involving a Fortune 500 company. Householder was recently sentenced to the maximum: 20 years in prison. Co-defendant Matt Borges, who previously led the Ohio Republican Party, was sentenced to five years in prison.
Using RICO to prosecute public corruption is still relatively rare, so the Ohio case offers a window into what Trump and his allies could face in Georgia.
What is racketeering?
Passed in 1970, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO Act, allows prosecutors to charge individuals who participate in a criminal conspiracy by violating at least two state or federal laws, such as bribery or money laundering. Dozens of states, including Georgia and Ohio, passed their own RICO laws in the years that followed.
The charge helped to punish mob bosses who didn’t commit the lower-level crimes themselves but rather orchestrated the overarching scheme. Giuliani, a former U.S. attorney, used RICO to prosecute mob families in New York in the late 1980s.
This dynamic played out at Householder’s federal trial. Householder didn’t cash every check or attend every meeting, but he ultimately was convicted of orchestrating the corrupt operation.
“Mr. Householder did not act alone, but he was at the top,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Singer said during closing arguments. “He benefited the most because the enterprise was set up to benefit his political machine.”
The Ohio pay-to-play scheme involved trading about $60 million in donations from Akron-based FirstEnergy and its allies for a $1.3 billion bailout benefiting two nuclear plants owned by FirstEnergy Solutions. Those donations helped Householder win control of the Ohio House of Representatives, pass the bailout in House Bill 6 and defend the law against a ballot initiative to block it.
Four others were charged with Householder. Political strategist Jeff Longstreth handled the flow of money. FirstEnergy Solutions lobbyist Juan Cespedes helped craft the law with Householder’s staff. Lobbyist Neil Clark served as Householder’s “proxy.” Borges bribed political operative Tyler Fehrman for inside information about the ballot initiative.
In the Georgia case, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, a Democrat, charged 19 people, including Trump. Among the accusations is Trump called Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, asking him to “find” enough votes for Trump to win the election; Trump and others made false statements about nonexistent voter fraud, accusing one election worker of being a “professional vote scammer”; and allies stole data from voting machines in a rural Georgia County, the Associated Press reported.
Prosecutors who effectively use the racketeering charge can sweep in seemingly unrelated crimes as long as they are connected by a common enterprise, former U.S. attorney Ben Glassman said.
In some instances, those with smaller roles in the scheme will plead guilty and testify against their co-conspirators at trial. That happened in the Ohio case where Longstreth and Cespedes detailed why and how they built up Householder’s political power.
What are the challenges to racketeering cases?
However, RICO cases can be hard to prosecute because of their complexity, novelty and the number of co-defendants involved. They also take time: Householder and his allies were arrested in July 2020 but the case didn’t go to trial until January 2023.
“These cases can take years,” Glassman said.
Willis told reporters she will seek a trial date for the Georgia case within six months and plans to try the defendants together. But a judge and defense attorneys could affect whether Willis gets her wish.
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Once the trial date arrives, prosecutors must lay out how all the pieces are connected into one cohesive enterprise. That took seven weeks in Householder’s trial, including hours of detailed testimony about donations, money transfers, text messages and photo metadata. Confuse the jury too much, and the case may end in an acquittal.
One key difference between Householder’s case and Trump’s is federal prosecutors brought one racketeering conspiracy charge against the former Ohio legislative leader. The Georgia indictment includes 41 charges including 13 against Trump, giving jurors options if they don’t believe a criminal enterprise occurred.
Reporting from The Associated Press contributed to this article.
Jessie Balmert is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Trump indictment: What can Ohio corruption case tell us about RICO?