Was It Overkill To Use Racketeering Law To Convict Atlanta Educators?


Congress passed the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) in 1970 out of a concern over rising mob infiltration of unions and corporations. It was aimed at jailing gangsters behind killings that were plaguing New York and New Jersey. The Los Angeles Times says that when eight Atlanta educators were convicted under a state RICO statute of manipulating their pupils’ test scores and sentenced to prison this week, many were surprised that the law had been stretched so far. Over the last half-century, the definition of a criminal enterprise has come to include Atlanta public schools. “Racketeers” could be teachers and school administrators. It did not surprise Atlanta law Prof. Morgan Cloud, who watched the federal statute clobber the mob in the 1980s and move on to such targets as the Roman Catholic Church, Major League Baseball, antiabortion activists, the Los Angeles Police Department and Wall Street financier Michael Milken. “Almost any form in which humans can carry on human activity can be a criminal enterprise,” Cloud said. “It can be a group of guys who meet on the corner.”

Prosecutors like RICO laws because they carry tough penalties and make it easier to get at top officials or leaders who previously often escaped conviction. Before the laws existed, prosecutors found it more difficult to convict the person who ordered a slaying than the one who actually pulled the trigger. The Atlanta case was the first academic misconduct trial in which elementary school teachers were convicted of violating a RICO act. Criminal defense lawyers expressed concern that a law intended for gangsters had been used to prosecute educators. “I think it’s overkill,” said Bruce Morris of the Finestone & Morris law firm in Atlanta. “RICO was originally designed for organized crime — folks who band together through a group effort. It was nowhere intended from the outset to go after a legitimate entity through which people violated the law.”

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