Fani Willis' secret weapon: Trump will face "the Michael Jordan of RICO"

John Floyd, a special assistant D.A., is described as the "last person" a RICO defendant wants to encounter

By Areeba Shah

Staff Writer

Published August 19, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

This combination of pictures created on Aug. 14, 2023 shows former President Donald Trump in Orlando on Feb. 26, 2022, and Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis on Aug. 14, 2023, in Atlanta.  (Chandan Khanna, Christian Monterrosa/AFP via Getty Images)
This combination of pictures created on Aug. 14, 2023 shows former President Donald Trump in Orlando on Feb. 26, 2022, and Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis on Aug. 14, 2023, in Atlanta. (Chandan Khanna, Christian Monterrosa/AFP via Getty Images)

When Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis brought state racketeering and conspiracy charges against Donald Trump and 18 co-defendants over their efforts to reverse the former president's defeat in the 2020 election in Georgia, she reached for a legal tool she has relied on before — in prosecuting corrupt school teachers and violent street gangs.

Georgia's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO, law enabled Willis to charge Trump and his allies for allegedly engaging in an extensive plot to overturn the state's 2020 election results. The historic 41-count indictment accused them of orchestrating a "criminal enterprise" with the intention of helping Trump maintain his hold on power.

Soon after her office opened up the investigation into potential illegal interference in the 2020 election in Georgia, Willis tapped John Floyd, who is viewed as one of the nation's leading authorities on RICO and literally wrote the book on Georgia's racketeering laws. Floyd was appointed as a special assistant district attorney to help with any racketeering cases her office would pursue.

"If I were charged with a RICO violation, the last person I'd want to see helping the prosecutor, maybe on the planet, is John Floyd," Eric Segall, the Kathy & Lawrence Ashe Professor of Law at Georgia State University, told Salon. Floyd, Segall continued, could be considered "kind of the Michael Jordan of RICO."

Throughout Floyd's legal career, he has specialized in pursuing public corruption and gang crime. 

In 2007, Floyd was among the first lawyers to file suit against the pharmaceutical firm Allergan for promoting its widely used injectable drug Botox for unauthorized purposes, according to The Atlanta Journal Constitution. That eventually resulted in the company admitting guilt and disbursing a settlement of $600 million.

He was a member of the prosecution teams that secured guilty verdicts on RICO charges in two significant cases. One involved former DeKalb County Sheriff Sidney Dorsey, who was found guilty of orchestrating the assassination of his political rival, Derwin Brown. The other case pertained to multiple educators and administrators implicated in a cheating scandal within Atlanta's public schools.

Fani Willis' indictment claims that what Trump did in Georgia, "he also did [in] other places," said Eric Segall. "That's powerful, and that's only possible because of RICO."

One key advantage RICO gives a prosecutor, Segall explained, is that it allows the inclusion of alleged criminal acts from other jurisdictions. The Georgia case against Trump and his allies, for instance, includes actions carried out in Pennsylvania that Willis alleges were part of the same criminal scheme conducted in Georgia. Trump and his associates, according to the Fulton County indictment, engaged in a coordinated effort aimed at contesting the election outcomes in numerous different states and propagating unfounded allegations of election fraud. 

Their actions were included in the indictment as "acts of racketeering activity and overt acts in furtherance of the conspiracy."

"The Pennsylvania part of the indictment is so powerful," Segall said, because it presents evidence that Trump's team was "basically doing the same thing in at least two different places." Without the RICO statute, it wouldn't be possible to admit actions in Pennsylvania as part of the evidence in the Georgia trial, he added. 

Essentially, Segall said, the indictment claims that what Trump did in Georgia, "he also did [in] other places. That's powerful, and that's only possible because of RICO."

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While RICO found its origin in mob prosecutions, it has been used in all kinds of organizational cases for decades now, Caren Myers Morrison, a former assistant U.S. attorney in New York and associate professor of law at Georgia State University, told Salon. What was "shocking, obviously" about this use of RICO "is that we've never had a former president indicted" under the statute, she added.  

The federal RICO Act originated in 1970 as a tool to fight organized crime, granting prosecutors the ability to target people in positions of power within criminal organizations, rather than only focusing on lower-level operatives who committed specific crimes.

But the intent behind the law was never solely confined to organized crime. RICO laws allow prosecutors to charge multiple individuals who commit separate crimes while working towards a shared objective.

"The RICO laws were enacted to prosecute organized crime figures" in circumstances when "often it was hard to prove that they were directly involved in the commission of crimes," former San Francisco prosecutor Lateef Gray told Salon. Under RICO statutes, prosecutors "are able to charge multiple defendants at once and bring in a wide array of evidence."

RICO charges generally come a substantial potential sentence that can be imposed in addition to any punishment for the underlying crimes. In Georgia, a felony conviction under RICO carries a prison term ranging from five to 20 years.

During John Floyd's career he has been on both sides of RICO cases, representing plaintiffs and defendants in high-stakes civil litigation involving the racketeering laws. His experience spans decades, and he has refined the Georgia law through multiple notable cases, according to ABC News

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In 1996, when Georgia state investigator Richard Hyde was considering how to prosecute fraud at the Medical College of Georgia, he turned to Floyd for guidance after learning about his practices for addressing racketeering fraud, ABC News reported. Hyde ultimately credited Floyd's help for the successful conviction of two faculty members, who were accused by prosecutors of embezzling $10 million in research funds. 

"If you're going to indict the president, you're going to want the best possible people on your team. I think John Floyd clearly fits the bill," Morrison said.

She also added that RICO is an appropriate statute for addressing the alleged criminal behavior involved in the extensive efforts of Trump and his allies to overturn the election results in Georgia.

"Whether it was trying to get the legislature to come back into session, whether it was to try to get information from the voting machines in Coffee County, whether it was calling Brad Raffensperger, there were all these different things that they were trying to do, all to get to the same result," Morrison said.

No one denies, however, that this particular use of the RICO laws is historic and unprecedented. Willis is "charging the president of the United States with being a racketeer," Segall said. "If he's found guilty, that's different than being guilty of forgery or something," he added. "A former president is being accused of being part of a criminal enterprise. Symbolically, that's very important."

By Areeba Shah

Areeba Shah is a staff writer at Salon covering news and politics. Previously, she was a research associate at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a reporting fellow for the Pulitzer Center, where she covered how COVID-19 impacted migrant farmworkers in the Midwest.

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Donald Trump Fani Willis Georgia Indictment John Floyd Racketeering Reporting Rico