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How Fani Wallis is using Georgia's RICO laws to prosecute Trump

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Former President Trump is now facing a fourth criminal case against him, this time brought by the state of Georgia. The indictment alleges that Trump attempted to subvert the 2020 election by taking part in a, quote, "criminal enterprise," along with more than a dozen named lawyers and former advisers. Here's Fulton County, Ga., district attorney Fani Willis describing the charges last night.

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FANI WILLIS: Every individual charged in the indictment is charged with one count of violating Georgia's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

CHANG: That is Georgia's RICO law, like its federal counterpart. It was designed mostly to prosecute organized crime groups. For more on how it factors into Georgia's case against Trump, we turn now to George Chidi. He's an Atlanta journalist who has spent many years covering Willis and RICO, and he was also selected to testify for the grand jury, though he wasn't actually called to testify in the very end. Welcome.

GEORGE CHIDI: Happy to be here.

CHANG: So real briefly, George, how does Georgia's anti-racketeering law, the RICO Act, come into play in this case?

CHIDI: So first, Georgia's racketeering law is modeled on the federal law, but - and it allows for expansive use of evidence that might not necessarily be included in another kind of case. It also allows for the prosecution of acts that don't actually occur in Georgia. As long as there's a nexus in Georgia, they could go after people like John Eastman, who may never have actually set foot in the state.

CHANG: Right. And to be clear, this is not the first time that Willis has employed RICO as a tool in criminal prosecutions, right? Can you just give us a sense of how she has used it in past cases?

CHIDI: So her star rose around RICO when the Atlanta public schools cheating scandal broke and prosecutors decided that that was a RICO case, that that fraud was worth, you know, pulling in a whole lot of teachers. And they prosecuted teachers. And it was this - it was the longest case to date. It took longer to get through that case than any other trial to that point...

CHANG: Interesting.

CHIDI: ...That Georgia has had. Like, that record's been broken now.

CHANG: (Laughter) But it was an unusual application of RICO.

CHIDI: You have a case that's going on now that's longer.

CHANG: Right. But it wasn't an unusual application of RICO, right?

CHIDI: In a sense that you're going after schoolteachers, I would say it actually was unusual. Usually, you're going after gangsters. You're going after the mob. The idea that teachers acting in concert is racketeering was kind of novel, I think.

CHANG: Literally alleging a criminal enterprise. But you mentioned the length of the trial. I mean, to be fair, RICO can cause problems. It allows for prosecutors like Willis to build a narrative, but it can also - because of the complexity of the case that you have to lay out, it can slow things down in the prosecution. Is that correct?

CHIDI: I think that's true. I also think that jury selection becomes fraught. In the RICO case that we're looking at with Young Thug and the YSL indictment - that's a gang case in Atlanta - jury selection began in January and is still going on.

CHANG: Wow. Well, despite the risks of bringing a RICO case, given Willis' success and track record prosecuting RICO cases, do you think she has a good chance of convincing a jury in Fulton County that Trump and others did indeed act as a criminal organization?

CHIDI: I think so, based on the evidence that has been laid out in the indictment. The - I mean, there's a lot of evidence. This is a long document, and she's taken two years to gather it. I think her chances are pretty solid. The one thing, though, I have to say is that I am hesitant to get too deep into whether or not this person or that person should be...

CHANG: Sure.

CHIDI: ...You know, criminally charged - because I might end up having to testify.

CHANG: Well, can I ask you about that? - because we mentioned that you were subpoenaed as a witness in this case, though the grand jury did not end up needing your testimony in the end. Were you surprised by the fact that you were called...

CHIDI: The whole thing's...

CHANG: ...To be on the list?

CHIDI: It's a little bonkers. No question. You don't want a journalist in - you know, having to testify to anything because there's a question of whether or not the government is telling, you know, news reporters what to say and making them act as agents of the government. You also kind of don't want a journalist sitting around outside your grand jury while things are going on because I get to tweet from inside. Inside - not, obviously, from inside the grand jury room, but...

CHANG: Right.

CHIDI: Last night was fun. Let's just put it like that - fun in the sense that this was super, super weird. I didn't have to testify. I'm actually a little relieved by that because I think it upholds the better angels of journalism for me not to have to testify.

CHANG: All right. We will leave it there. George Chidi is a crime and politics reporter in Atlanta and co-host of the podcast "King Slime." Thanks so much.

CHIDI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Elena Burnett
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.