Prosecutors have been using federal racketeering laws for more than 40 years, targeting everyone from military defense contractors to Wall Street luminaries and motorcycle gangs.
The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act -- or RICO -- has proven particularly useful in public corruption prosecutions like that of the "Kilpatrick Enterprise" case.
It proved to be successful in the Kilpatrick case. Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his contractor friend Bobby Ferguson were convicted this morning of racketeering.
The law was passed in 1970 as a prosecutorial tool against burgeoning Mafia crime syndicates in major U.S. cities. Subsequent U.S. Supreme Court decisions broadened the definition to include any organization involved in a racketeering enterprise.
Under RICO, the leaders of such an enterprise can be tried for crimes they ordered others to do or assisted in. To qualify for racketeering charges, those involved in the enterprise must be accused of committing at least two of 35 specific crimes -- 27 federal and 8 state crimes -- within a 10-year period.
-- Live blog: Follow live from the courthouse as verdicts are announced; read a replay later
-- Full coverage: Past stories, blogs and videos at Freep.com/kilpatricktrial
Federal prosecutors -- in bringing RICO charges against former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, his father, Bernard Kilpatrick, and contractor friend Bobby Ferguson -- charged that the three were soliciting bribes and extorting money from private contractors for years, running a pay-to-play scheme out of City Hall.
Experts say it had all the makings of a classic RICO case.
"One of the advantages of RICO from a prosecutor's standpoint is that you can use it to include different crimes which might not be connected, but under RICO, you can use those crimes to lay the base for the offense," said former federal prosecutor Nicholas Harbist, now co-executive director of the American Bar Association's White Collar Crime committee and a practicing defense attorney in New Jersey. "More often than not when you're dealing with public officials, it is the office of the public official that is the enterprise. And these people are often insulated, they're not the ones doing the extortion, the loan sharking. They're not the hit men."
Civil rights activists and many defense attorneys argue RICO may be too broad and sweeping, giving prosecutors the ability to lump what are sometimes lower-level felonies together so a defendant is suddenly facing a 20-year stint in federal prison on a RICO conviction.
"If you have two federal crimes that qualify as predicate acts, you can pretty much spin anything into a RICO," said Walter Piszczatowski, a Bloomfield Hills attorney who represents defendants accused of federal crimes.
-- Charges: Full list of charges faced by Kilpatrick, his father and Ferguson
-- Timeline: How the Kilpatrick federal public corruption trial unfolded
-- Key players: Who's who in the federal public corruption case and most memorable witnesses
Neil Fink, a longtime federal defense attorney, represented a businessman in the Vista Disposal Inc. case in the early 1980s, in which Detroit officials and business people were charged with rigging a multi-million dollar sludge hauling contract. The government tried to have then-mayor Coleman Young named as an unindicted co-conspirator, pointing out that people associated with the bid gave him gifts and redecorated his townhouse. The government lost the bid, and ultimately three people were convicted.
"You have to show intent," Fink said. "If you walk past a cashier because you forgot to pay, that's different than secreting the item under your shirt."
The RICO act also allows people harmed by criminal enterprises to file civil suits seeking monetary damages. The Catholic Church has been sued under RICO because of child sexual assaults, and the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico prompted dozens of civil RICO suits.
The U.S. Supreme Court in recent years has been tailoring the law to make it more restrictive on who can file civil RICO lawsuits to keep businesses from suing each over common business disputes under RICO.
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