Racketeering in Public Service

By Jason Bowns

Can a school district function as a criminal enterprise? What about a probation department or a political party organization? According to recent convictions for violating federal and state racketeer influenced and corrupt organization (RICO) laws, the answer is “yes.”

RICO was initially designed to combat La Casa Nostra when it was originally sponsored by U.S. Senator John McClellan and drafted by his legislative aide, G. Robert Blakely. President Richard Nixon signed RICO into law Oct. 15, 1970.

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Photo Credit: Politico

The federal RICO law reads, “It shall be unlawful for any person through a pattern of racketeering activity or through collection of an unlawful debt to acquire or maintain, directly or indirectly, any interest in or control of any enterprise which is engaged in, or the activities of which affect, interstate or foreign commerce.”

By definition, “Racketeering activity” covers a broad range of conduct including “any act or threat involving murder, kidnapping, gambling, arson, robbery, bribery, extortion, dealing in obscene matter or dealing in a controlled substance or listed chemical…which is chargeable under state law and punishable by imprisonment for more than one year.”

Racketeering includes a range of other various criminal offenses relating to bribery, counterfeiting, fraud, human trafficking, money laundering and biological weapons. Many states enacted RICO laws at the state level, modeled after the federal law. Those states include New York, Georgia, California, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Criminal prosecutions have increasingly taken RICO to new levels, invoking stiff penalties including up to 20 years in prison per count and property forfeiture, in addition to civil penalties.

For example, a standardized test cheating scandal in Atlanta led to the conviction of teachers and administrators under Georgia’s state RICO law. The two defendants who admitted guilt received plea deals providing for probation only and no jail time. However, the eight who refused were sentenced to prison terms ranging from one to seven years. The three administrators who received seven years in prison, which is twice what prosecutors had requested, will be resentenced April 30.

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Photo Credit: USA Today

John O’Brien, a former Massachusetts probation commissioner, was convicted last summer of racketeering after a lengthy trial. He was accused of overseeing a rigged hiring system which favored politically connected job candidates to work for the probation department. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison. His deputy also received three months in prison.

In New Jersey, former Bergen County Democratic Organization chairman Joseph Ferriero was recently convicted of operating in a racketeering scheme by “running a local political organization as a criminal enterprise, using his power and position to line his pockets.”

These cases move far beyond the original intent of RICO to prosecute members of La Cosa Nostra. Should RICO be used to prosecute former public servants in this way, to send them to prison? Do white-collar criminals deserve lighter sentences than violent ones?

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Photo Credit: University of Wisconsin-Madison

George Orwell once wrote, “But of course it was an American paper. The Americans always go one better on any kinds of beastliness, whether it is ice-cream, racketeering or theosophy.”

Surely the same can now be said of racketeering prosecutions.

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