“Georgia statute, broader than its federal counterpart, enables prosecutors to portray allies working together to commit crimes
Fani Willis, the Fulton county district attorney, used one of her favorite prosecutorial tools on Monday to allege that 19 people, including Donald Trump, made repeated efforts to reverse the 2020 presidential election results.
The 96-page, 41-count indictment alleges that Trump, who delivered a speech the day following the presidential election falsely declaring himself as victorious, conspired with 18 allies in the months after the election to overturn the results. The group worked together, in violation of Georgia’s version of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as Rico, according to the allegations in the indictment.
The statute allows Willis to tie in alleged unlawful activity that occurred outside the Atlanta area, like a meeting with Trump and his allies in Michigan to overturn the election results there. It also allows prosecutors to include a number of occurrences that might have otherwise seemed small or irrelevant, but taken as a whole, showcase that “every time one scheme failed, [the co-defendants] moved on to another”, said Anthony Michael Kreis, a Georgia State University law professor who specializes in election law.
In the indictment, Willis alleges that the accused, including Trump’s former chief of staff Mark Meadows and attorney Rudy Giuliani, violated election laws by making false statements about voter fraud and holding meetings to strategize how to disrupt the counting of electoral votes in Congress, among many other allegations.
“The basic premise of the Rico charge is that the unlawful enterprise was built and established and maintained for the singular unlawful purpose to overthrow the election and deny Georgians their right to vote,” Kreis said.
Clark Cunningham, a Georgia State University law professor said the use of Georgia’s statute, which is much broader than the federal one, allows prosecutors to string together events that would otherwise appear distinct, including the data breach in Coffee county (Trump’s allies obtained access to voting machines in the rural Georgia county shortly after the election in an attempt to show that they were rigged) and statements made by Giuliani to the Georgia legislature.
On its own, for instance, the assertion that Mark Meadows visited Cobb county and got the personal phone number of the supervisor in charge of auditing absentee ballots might not be illegal. But, using Rico, prosecutors allege that Meadows then gave the phone number to Trump, who proceeded to influence election results.
“You add that to everything, and you see that all of these different things were being tried in hopes that some of them would work and prevent Biden from taking over the presidency,” Cunningham said.
In addition to the expected close allies of Trump, the 19 people named in the indictment include lesser known conspirators, like a former publicist for Kanye West and a Georgia bail bondsman.
“You have a small army,” Cunningham said. “The jury gets to see how all of these people acted together to cause this to happen.”
The use of Georgia’s Rico statute allows prosecutors to single out unlawful activity without asserting that all of the parties got together to plan and discuss every single alleged act. The Rico statute, Kreis said, does not require that people “have a dinner party to discuss how they’re going to plot out and map out a crime”.
In similar cases, prosecutors often hope that some of the co-defendants will accept plea deals, lowering the number of people who have to stand trial while also helping to strengthen the case among the remaining defendants.
Willis hasn’t been shy about her fondness of using Rico in the past. When discussing it at a recent press conference, she referred to the statute as “a tool that allows a prosecutor’s office or law enforcement to tell the whole story”.