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Rudy Guiliani is among the 19 other defendants in Trump's racketeering indictment

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Two decades ago, NPR's Robert Siegel asked G. Robert Blakey about the expanding use of RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Blakey drafted the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970. Title IX of the act is known as RICO. At the time, there was a case concerning Tyson Foods and undocumented workers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROBERT SIEGEL: Is it fair now to apply the same law to a poultry company, however badly it may behave...

G ROBERT BLAKEY: Well...

SIEGEL: ...Given that it's not - it isn't a gangster organization?

BLAKEY: Organized crime was the occasion for the enactment of the statute, but it applies to any person. For example, when Michael Milken was operating Drexel Burnham by a pattern of fraud on Wall Street, the statute applied to him just as it did when Vito Genovese was applying his trade over on Mulberry Street in New York. So it applies to all God's children.

RASCOE: Now Fulton County, Ga., is accusing 19 people of running afoul of that state's RICO statute. Donald Trump is at the top of the list, of course, but another defendant is Rudy Giuliani, who made ample use of RICO as a prosecutor in New York. Joining us now is Ken White, a former federal prosecutor who now works as a criminal defense attorney. Thanks for being with us.

KEN WHITE: Thank you for inviting me.

RASCOE: So Georgia's law is based on the federal law. Is there much difference between the two? And I do have to ask you, do you think it's an appropriate application in this case?

WHITE: Georgia's RICO law is broader and more loosely interpreted than the federal RICO law. When you look at federal RICO prosecutions and civil suits, the federal courts impose a ton of complicated requirements and elements. Georgia courts have taken a much more sort of easygoing approach, generalist approach to the burden of proof here. In terms of whether it's right - it's a very powerful tool. And the problem in my mind as a criminal defense attorney with giving the government a super powerful tool to use against the very worst people is, pretty soon, they start using it against everybody.

RASCOE: The idea being, like, if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail?

WHITE: Exactly. Or if you have some tool that's only supposed to be used against, you know, the five families of New York or something, all of a sudden, it's being used for very different people. One of the things that the RICO statute enables, makes easier is for prosecutors like District Attorney Willis to bring these big, sprawling cases with many defendants. Here in the Trump indictment, we have 19. In the famous school cheating scandal RICO case she brought, there were initially dozens. And in the Young Thug case that she's bringing, there were initially dozens, and there's still about a dozen.

Part of the problem of that from a perspective of getting trials done is it makes it incredibly burdensome and difficult to move forward. So that Young Thug RICO case is in its eighth month of trial, and they don't even have a jury yet. In the case of the school cheating scandal that she prosecuted under RICO, the trial was seven months long.

RASCOE: Part of this - isn't it? - when you throw around a lot of charges for a lot of people is that you can get some of the people to plead guilty and then maybe testify against other people. Is that part of the reasoning?

WHITE: It's absolutely part of it. I would say out of those 19 defendants in the Trump indictment, maybe two or three of them can afford to defend themselves all the way through trial in a case like this. It's ruinously expensive. And most people, for that matter, can't afford not to work for six to nine months while you're in trial. So there's a huge pressure just to plead guilty. And that makes better stats for the DA, more people flipped to testify against others and more apparent success.

RASCOE: And so Rudy Giuliani is also charged in this. And he famously used the RICO law to go after organized crime but also to go after white-collar crimes, like insider trading, when he was a prosecutor in New York. Did he, in a way, lay the groundwork 30 years ago for his own indictment now?

WHITE: He did. He put in some of the big initial RICO trials, the famous ones against the mob in New York, and then against some high-profile white-collar criminals. And the sort of culture surrounding RICO grew up out of that.

RASCOE: Tyson Foods won the case that we referenced in the introduction to this conversation. So what do you make of the Georgia case - not just the RICO part but the 41 counts brought here? Do you think it's a strong case?

WHITE: I think there's the core of a strong case in there, a core of some overt criminal acts that can probably be addressed. I think there's a lot of fluff, also. It'll be interesting to see how it plays out. And there are a lot of complicating factors that we haven't yet seen come into play yet, like the ability of Trump or some of the other defendants to remove this case to federal court because it addresses things that happened when they were federal officials. So I think DA Willis' hope to get this going in six months is not realistic.

RASCOE: Well, Fani Willis has also leaned on RICO during her time as the Fulton County DA. So is her track record as good there as Giuliani's was as a federal prosecutor in New York?

WHITE: Well, so far, she's had a lot of success with RICO. Critics say that she's using it against the wrong people. So, for instance, there was a lot of controversy about her use of RICO against teachers and educational administrators in a cheating and educational fraud case. They thought it was disproportionate. There's controversy, but there's no question that she's had success.

RASCOE: That's criminal defense attorney Ken White. He's also co-host of the podcast "Serious Trouble." Thanks so much for joining us.

WHITE: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SVEN WUNDER'S "BLACK IRIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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