In 1970, Congress tackled the nation’s organized crime problem by enacting the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO or Racketeering Act). While primarily motivated by the illegal activities of mafia “families” and such syndicates as featured in Hollywood’s Godfather classic, the RICO statute was aimed at a wide swath of methodical and organized criminal activity which was notable for its pattern of repetitive violations of a host of specific criminal statutes. This legislation is codified at 18 U.S. Code Sections 1961-1968.
Prosecution under RICO is triggered by two or more acts of listed criminal activity, referenced as “predicate acts,” and/or conspiring to commit such acts. The predicate acts do not have to be the same, and any combination of delineated crimes may be considered. Among the proscribed crimes which qualify as predicate acts are:
any act or threat involving murder, kidnapping, robbery, bribery, extortion, mail fraud, wire fraud, obstruction of justice, tampering with a witness, retaliating against a witness or informant, obstruction of State or local law enforcement, drug trafficking (and others)
The RICO act also defines an “enterprise” subject to certain provisions of the statute to include any individual, partnership, association or other legal entity, and any… group of individuals associated in fact although not a legal entity (which engages in or affects interstate commerce).
In short, within the contours of this historic legislation, Congress defined the elements of organized crime and its core DNA, while dedicating powerful national resources to eradicate it through the criminal justice system with severe penal sanctions.
With RICO as background, consider the following recent events reported by the media:
1) The Trump-Ukraine scandal: Did the action of Donald Trump in withholding military aid, which had been appropriated by Congress for the defense of Ukraine, and condition providing the aid only if the Ukrainian government initiated and publicly announced a criminal investigation of a domestic political rival of Trump, constitute an act involving extortion, and did he conspire with others to accomplish this objective?
2) Was Alexander Vindman, a witness in the Ukrainian incident who cooperated with a Congressional subpoena and testified before a House impeachment inquiry regarding the matter, retaliated against because of his cooperation and role as a witness?
3) Did a “group of individuals associated in fact” conspire to and act to obstruct state, local and federal law enforcement by threatening election officials with bodily harm and death for performing their duty in counting and returning ballots cast during the 2020 presidential election?
4) Did Trump conspire to and engage in obstruction of state law enforcement by contacting the Georgia Secretary of State and demanding he change the election tally and transfer approximately 11,800 votes that were cast for Biden to himself in order for Trump to carry Georgia and its electoral votes.?
5) Did Trump and others conspire to obstruct justice and state, local and federal law enforcement by falsely claiming that the U.S. Department of Justice had found evidence of fraud in the 2020 election returns in connection with a plan to prevent the certification of the Electoral College ballots by the vice president and Congress?
6) Did Trump and others conspire to obstruct justice and impede an official proceeding in Congress by inciting and causing a “group of individuals associated in fact” to storm the Capitol building to forcibly and violently prevent the certification of the Electoral College ballots by the vice president of the United. States?
7) Did Trump obstruct justice, tamper with and intimidate witnesses, and interfere with criminal investigations after the attack on the Capitol when he subsequently urged his supporters at a rally in Texas to stage “the biggest protests we have ever had in Washington, D.C., in New York, in Atlanta and elsewhere” should any charges be brought (against him based on the investigations in those jurisdictions), or by promising to grant pardons to those being prosecuted for crimes committed in the attack if re-elected?
I raise these issues not to advocate for or against the merits of potential charges arising out of the incidents — such decisions are wholly within the purview of others who are tasked with the duty to investigate and determine whether the evidence justifies seeking accountability through legal proceedings. But regardless of the outcome of pending investigations, the issues present fair and important questions implicating the gravest concerns for our political system.
These actions, as well as others well known to those who keep up with current events impacting our complex societal structure, reflect a dangerously unhealthy political system in a country once touted as a model of Democracy.
We have witnessed one of the major political parties not only adopting a platform at its 2020 convention, which consisted of complying with the will of its nominee for president (which frankly translates into the submissiveness accorded dictators), but also promulgating a resolution that endorses the violent Capitol riot/insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021 as “legitimate political discourse.”
When a nation’s political playbook reads like a Cosa Nostra manual and includes a Putinesque loyalty oath, its claim of democratic governance is feeble and teetering on life support.
When it also includes approval of bloody overthrow of that form of governance, it is hypocrisy.
Please wake up, America. Put aside your differences, affirm your principles and protect your freedoms.
The alternative is the equivalent of the 9th Circle of Dante’s Hell, and once lost, again finding Democracy and the rule of law might well prove to be mission impossible. The enemies of Democracy are formidable and determined, and our Constitution may be an imperfect document, but it is at its best when it is inclusive of all the People, not a narrow slice of just a few members of a powerful “group of individuals associated in fact” to compel their agenda on the rest of us.
Crawl over broken glass in your bare feet if you have to, but turn out in record numbers and vote despite the barriers being constructed to keep you from voting. Don’t let them pull off a “hit” on your right to vote and send Democracy to “sleep with the fishes”.
Thomas Coffin is a retired United States magistrate judge. He served 24 years in the United States District Court for the District of Oregon, from 1992 to 2016.