RICO a powerful tool in APS test-cheating case

When the state brought racketeering charges against Atlanta Public Schools employees in the test-cheating scandal, criminal defense attorneys called it overkill. Teachers, principals … racketeers?

On Wednesday, however, jurors unanimously agreed that 11 of the 12 former educators charged in the cheating scandal were guilty of engaging in a racketeering conspiracy.

The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act — or RICO —was first enacted to fight corruption and organized crime. But Georgia’s law, passed in 1980, has enabled state prosecutors to seek it in cases involving gang leaders, public officials and an assisted-suicide group.

“It was never intended for this type of prosecution,” said Atlanta defense attorney Bruce Morris. “RICO was designed to combat organized gambling, loan sharking and your classic 1920s, 1930s, 1940s organized crime syndicates. APS is not some kind of syndicate to be used for carrying out illegal acts.”

But John Floyd, the state’s premier RICO expert and a special prosecutor for the Fulton County district attorney on the APS case, said there was nothing inappopriate about the charges. It’s not necessary to demonstrate any sort of organized crime connection to prove a racketeering violation, he told jurors during closing arguments.

One consequence of a successful RICO prosecution, whatever the charges, is hard time.

“It’s like the nuclear bomb of state charges against non-violent offenders,” Atlanta defense attorney Steve Sadow, who was not involved in the case, said. “It carries such a heavy potential sentence — up to 20 years in prison. And Georgia’s parole board looks at it as a top-tier crime, so the chance of early parole is remote.”

RICO, Sadow said, “can take a run-of-the-mill criminal act and turn it into a severe crime with horrible consequences.”

Jack Martin, another defense attorney not involved in the case, agreed that RICO is a powerful weapon for prosecutors.

“It allows all sorts of evidence that wouldn’t be allowed in most other cases,” Martin said. “It also raises the possibility of someone being convicted of guilt by association.”

In this case, Fulton prosecutors said, the defendants turned Atlanta Public Schools into a racket.

“It seems to be a stretch to use RICO in a school system case,” Martin said. “But technically it can be used this way under the law.”

A Fulton grand jury initially charged 35 former educators with racketeering and other lesser felonies. Two of those defendants, including former Superintendent Beverly Hall, passed away. Twenty-one entered into guilty pleas and received sentences of probation.

As for those who went to trial and rolled the dice, “It was certainly an unwise risk in light of what was being offered,” Sadow said.

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