Former President Donald Trump was indicted Monday on racketeering, a charge once reserved for mob bosses and drug kingpins and now used by prosecutors to crack down on political corruption.
Trump, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and several others are accused of stealing Georgia’s electoral votes from President Joe Biden after the 2020 election. Georgia’s grand jury issued 41-count indictments against 19 people prosecutors say played a role in the scheme. Trump’s campaign denounced the allegations, calling them a political attack by a “rabid partisan” prosecutor.
Racketeering Conspiracy or RICO was the federal indictment against Larry Householder, the former Speaker of the Ohio House, and his allies in the largest Statehouse corruption scandal: a $60 million pay-to-play plan involving a Fortune 500 company used to be. Housekeeper 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.
The use of RICO to prosecute public corruption is still relatively rare, so the Ohio case offers a glimpse into what Trump and his allies may face in Georgia.
What is Extortion?
Passed in 1970, the Racketeering of Affected 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 indictment helped punish mob bosses who did not commit the lower-level crimes themselves, but rather orchestrated the overarching scheme. Giuliani, a former US attorney, used RICO to prosecute New York mob families in the late 1980s.
This dynamic played out during Householder’s federal trial. Householder didn’t cash every check or attend every meeting, but he was eventually convicted of orchestrating the corrupt operation.
“Mr. Householder was not acting alone, but he was at the top,” assistant attorney Matt Singer said during closing arguments. “He benefited the most because the venture was set up to benefit his political machine.”
The Ohio pay-to-play arrangement involved trading approximately $60 million in donations from Akron-based FirstEnergy and its allies for a $1.3 billion bailout benefiting two nuclear power plants owned by FirstEnergy Solutions. Those donations helped Householder gain control of the Ohio House of Representatives, pass the House Bill 6 bailout, and defend the bill against a ballot to block it.
Four others were charged with Householder. Political strategist Jeff Longstreth dealt with the flow of money. FirstEnergy Solutions lobbyist Juan Cespedes helped draft the law with Householder’s staff. Lobbyist Neil Clark served as the Householder’s “plenipotentiary”. Borges bribed political agent Tyler Fehrman for inside information on the ballot.
In the Georgia case, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, a Democrat, has charged 19 people, including Trump. One of the allegations is that Trump called Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State and asked him to “find” enough votes for Trump to win the election; Trump and others made false statements about non-existent voter fraud, accusing an election aide of being a “professional vote swindler”; and allies stole data from voting machines in a rural Georgia county, the Associated Press reported.
Prosecutors who make effective use of the racketeering charge can track down seemingly unrelated crimes as long as they are connected by a joint venture, former U.S. attorney Ben Glassman said.
In some cases, those with lesser 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 set out why and how they built Householder’s political power.
What are the challenges for extortion cases?
However, RICO cases can be difficult to prosecute due to 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 did not go to trial until January 2023.
“These cases can go on for years,” Glassman said.
Willis told reporters she will seek a trial date for the Georgia case in six months and plans to try the defendants together. But a judge and lawyers can determine 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 undertaking. That took seven weeks into Householder’s trial, including hours of detailed testimony about donations, remittances, text messages and photo metadata. Confuse the jury too much and the case could end in an acquittal.
A key difference between Householder’s case and Trump’s is that federal prosecutors brought one conspiracy charge against the former Ohio legislative leader. The Georgia indictment includes 41 charges, including 13 against Trump, giving jurors a choice if they don’t believe a criminal enterprise has taken place.
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 Ohio affiliate news organizations.
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Trump Indictment: What Can the Ohio Corruption Case Tell Us About RICO?