- The Trump Org and CFO Allen Weisselberg are facing criminal probes from New York’s attorney general.
- As part of those investigations, prosecutors could pursue racketeering charges under RICO laws.
- Legal experts told Insider about how RICO laws could come into play.
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A spokesperson for New York Attorney General Letitia James said her office was coordinating with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, which has been running a separate investigation into Trump’s and the Trump Organization’s finances.
Trump responded to the news of the investigation by issuing a 909-word statement in which he said he was the victim of “political persecution.”
Legal experts told Insider’s Jacob Shamsian that the unusual announcement could be a strategy to get more witnesses to cooperate, but the move also reignited speculation about which types of charges, if any, prosecutors may pursue.
One route prosecutors could take is to treat the Trump Organization like an organized-crime operation and seek charges under Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) laws.
Insider spoke with University of Notre Dame law professor G. Robert Blakey, who helped draft the 1970 federal RICO Act and similar legislation in 22 states, and Jeffrey Robbins, a white-collar attorney and former federal prosecutor, about how such laws could come into play.
What are RICO laws and how could they apply to the Trump Organization?
The federal RICO Act was enacted as a way to combat organized crime, and a majority of states have since passed similar laws.
But even though they’ve come to be associated with cases involving the mafia, Robbins said RICO laws could apply to any situations where organizations engage in criminal activity for the benefit of their officers or owners.
“The RICO statute is brought all the time in cases which do not involve physical violence, but which involve financial criminality, so it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that, among the things, that prosecutors are looking at whether there’s a basis to charge the organization with racketeering,” Robbins said, adding that it was too early to predict prosecutors’ plans.
While they’re complex and vary by state, RICO laws typically involve a person engaging in a “pattern of criminal behavior” through an “enterprise” over a certain period of time for their financial gain, according to Blakey.
Prosecutors could look at criminal activity involving not just the Trump Organization but also Trump’s use of the US government for his personal gain, Blakey added.
“You think he didn’t make money off the government and the way he ran the hotel?” Blakey said, referring to the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC, which created scrutiny over whether there were conflicts of interest for Trump while he was in office.
RICO charges can be brought in civil or criminal cases, Blakey said. But, he added, as a state prosecutor, James would be able to bring charges only under New York’s state law, not the federal RICO Act.
Why might prosecutors pursue RICO charges?
Compared with conspiracy or other charges prosecutors could pursue, racketeering charges carry much longer sentences and larger financial penalties.
“A five-year issue would become a 20-year issue,” Blakey said.
Also, instead of having to pay a (relatively) small fine, he said, the convicted person must forfeit assets and profits they gained because of their criminal activity, based on the value of the illegal transactions.
“It’s flexible in amount, but it’s mandatory,” he added.
Blakey said that could make a huge difference in practice: “You’re a dope dealer, you made $1 million — you owe [the government] $1 million. You make $2 million — you owe [the government] $2 million. If it was just a fine for doing the dope, it would be $10,000.”
There are also considerations around the narrative prosecutors might try to create to persuade a jury if a case against Trump or the Trump Organization went to trial.
“He talks like a mafioso. He acts like a mafioso,” Blakey said, adding: “His legal campaign was actually taking over a legitimate organization to run it criminally.”
What are hurdles to pursuing RICO charges?
Given the political nature of any case involving Trump, prosecutors will need to be strategic about the type of case they pursue if they do charge Trump or his affiliates, Blakey said.
“If you’re going to mess around with the president of the United States, you best have the simplest case alive and overwhelming evidence,” he said.
The simplest case would be a civil case without racketeering charges, which would be the easiest to win and could at least help prosecutors prove a symbolic point that “nobody is above the law,” Blakey said.
Going the criminal route, with or without RICO charges, would be much harder because jury verdicts in criminal cases must be unanimous. He added: “You always run the risk of a die-hard Trump supporter who will vote against you no matter what your evidence is.”
Seeking racketeering charges in either a criminal or civil case would add yet another layer of difficulty for prosecutors.
“You have to show a pattern” of crimes, Blakey said. “More than a few, over a substantial period of time.”