RICO: 1970 Racketeer lnfluenced and Corrupt Organization Act

The RICO Act
The RICO Act

It had been a steady parade over the years: aging Mafia mobsters making court appearances and putting up bail. They were flanked by lawyers and bodyguards and quick stepped their way past a gauntlet of reporters, photographers and television cameramen, snarling and cursing and fending off cameras with coats and umbrellas.

Occasionally a top mafioso or two was forced to do a short prison stretch, terms, as they said, they could "do sitting on their heads." But Mafia prosecutions consistently amounted to little due to lack of evidence.

In the mid-1980s, the federal government tried a new tactic, belatedly utilizing RICO, the 1970 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act. RICO allowed for long prison terms if the government could prove Mafioso connection to a criminal "enterprise" or to a criminal "commission" that functioned as a criminal enterprise.

Why did it take 15 years for the U.S. Justice Department to go all out with RICO? In the 1970s juries simply were not convicting RICO cases, and appeals courts differed on the statute's proper use. Finally, in 1981 the Supreme Court resolved the disputes with a generous interpretation of federal power. Suddenly, long prison terms hit mob leaders in Los Angeles, New Orleans and Cleveland.

These efforts were carried out in some cases by FBI forces and prosecutors who weren't at all sure the tactic would really work. In 1985 the biggest case of all was launched against the five New York crime families. The top echelon gangsters of these groups were still astonished and outraged that they could be convicted under RICO by their very membership in the Mafia or the National Commission.

When Frankie "the Beast" Falanga was brought in a federal prosecutor's office and informed he would be indicted on RICO charges, he flew into a rage and bounced out of his chair, screaming, "RICO? I don't even know any fucking RICO!" Some said he took the whole thing so seriously that he dropped dead just before going to trial.

In late 1986 the commission case concluded with the conviction of Fat Tony Salerno, Carmine "Junior" Persico and Tony Ducks Corallo. Even though John Gotti was acquitted in 1987 on 69 counts of federal racketeering and conspiracy charges and six of his aides were also cleared, Gotti would be nailed under RICO five years later. By then RICO had gained the stature of the atomic bomb of criminal law.

But even an activated RICO was not viewed as sufficient to stop organized crime. Sending crime leaders to prison for 30 or 40 years or longer didn't really interrupt the Mafia as long as its machinery remained intact. Some bosses continued running their organizations from prison. Legal experts agreed that the big test for RICO was the fact that it authorized seizure of illicitly obtained wealth and its proceeds.

If RICO could crack that nut—take away their bars, their restaurants, their carting companies, even their casinos—the Mafia would collapse. By the late 1990s that matter was still in dispute by some who found the evidence at best anecdotal on the financial accomplishments of the law.

The catch was that RICO was being used in ways never intended by its framers, but this reflected the difficulty of fashioning a law against one group of people while immunizing most other citizens. Business spokespeople have become highly critical of RICO.

Many critics had noted that in the 1980s the law was used by non-governmental forces, since it allowed for triple damages for extortion. Thus Greyhound bus lines sued the Amalgamated Transit Union for trying "to extort wages and benefits from Greyhound," even though the union was engaged in a lawful strike.

By late 1989, the Justice Department revised its RICO guidelines so that homes and businesses would not be confiscated in all cases and innocent third parties ruined by zealous enforcement. Critics agreed this helped but there were other concerns, such as the law being applied to political situations.

Not surprisingly, when a federal jury in 1998 in Illinois found that people picketing abortion clinics were guilty of extortion, the anti-abortion forces claimed RICO was being used to deny free speech and equating their protest with racketeering.

Among those upset was G. Robert Blakey of the Notre Dame Law School, considered to be the father of the RICO law. He insisted that in the Illinois case, "The judge and jury are succeeding in morphing coercion into extortion." Others did not necessarily agree.

It all represented the contradictions within RICO. Such conservative voices as Investor's Business Daily denounced the Illinois decision. It did not criticize the jurors but simply called the decision "a defeat for free speech. And RICO is to blame."

It seems clear that more challenges to RICO are in the offing, but whether they ever aid the cause of mobsters remains to be seen.