The state's leading expert in racketeering prosecutions has been hired by Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard to assist in the ongoing investigation into test cheating at Atlanta Public Schools, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.
Atlanta lawyer John Floyd, who has served as a special prosecutor in a number of high-profile cases, is working with the District Attorney's Office as a grand jury investigates the scandal, lawyers familiar with the probe said. The attorneys requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the grand jury proceedings.
The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act -- or RICO -- is often used by district attorneys to try to prove that a legal business was being used for illegal means. It allows prosecutors to sweep numerous defendants accused of committing various crimes into the same indictment and to allege they were all part of an ongoing enterprise. Racketeering convictions carry stiff punishment of up to 20 years in prison, much longer than what school officials might face under other possible charges.
Both Howard and Floyd declined to comment.
It is unclear how close Howard is to deciding whether to ask the grand jury to hand up indictments in the APS case. It also remains to be seen whether racketeering charges will be sought and, if so, who would be the possible targets. But bringing Floyd into the case shows the charges must be under consideration.
RICO was first enacted to fight corruption and organized crime, but Georgia's law, passed in 1980, has allowed state prosecutors to seek it in cases involving gang leaders, former Cobb EMC chief Dwight Brown, the assisted-suicide group the Final Exit Network and, just recently, former DeKalb schools Superintendent Crawford Lewis.
The Fulton grand jury began investigating the cheating scandal after a scathing report was released in July, concluding a lengthy state investigation into the APS cheating scandal. The report described an enterprise where unethical -- and potentially illegal -- behavior infiltrated every level of the bureaucracy and that "thousands of school children were harmed by widespread cheating."
Three special investigators found cheating on standardized tests occurred at 44 Atlanta schools and involved 178 educators, including 38 principals. The probe was launched after multiple articles in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution raised questions about the validity of APS test score improvements.
"A culture of fear and a conspiracy of silence infected this school system, and kept many teachers from speaking freely about misconduct," the investigators' report said. "From the onset of this investigation, we were confronted by a pattern of interference by top APS leadership in our attempt to gather evidence."
When asked to comment on Floyd's involvement in the case, Mike Bowers, one of the three APS special investigators, said, "I am encouraged that Mr. Howard is getting someone of Mr. Floyd's ability and insight to look at this."
Richard Hyde, another special investigator, said: "If John Floyd's been hired, that is somebody who will take a very serious look into this because John's the expert. ... I can see where there could be some areas he could look into."
The AJC previously reported that Fulton prosecutors were considering charges such as altering public documents, a felony, relating to the cheating scandal and alleged kickback schemes involving APS vendors.
Floyd, 54, is a partner with the firm Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore and is well known for a tremendous work ethic. He also wrote the only book on state racketeering laws, a guide that is 1,010 pages in length.
In 2002, Floyd served as a special prosecutor for DeKalb County in the successful prosecution against former Sheriff Sidney Dorsey. Dorsey was convicted of the 2000 murder of Sheriff-elect Derwin Brown and of racketeering charges. For his help convicting Dorsey, Floyd received awards from the District Attorneys' Association of Georgia and the National District Attorneys Association.
In the late 1990s, Floyd served as a special assistant attorney general and helped obtain convictions against two members of the Medical College of Georgia who had stolen more than $10 million in research funds.
"He's a top-notch scholar," said Atlanta attorney Don Samuel, who defended Dorsey and former professor Bruce Diamond in the Medical College of Georgia case. "He's innovative and sometimes pushes the envelope as to how RICO is used."
A racketeering enterprise, Samuel said, "could be a public entity such as a mayor's office and even a school system or a private entity like a waste management company. RICO allows you to bring all the crimes into one sweeping indictment."
Those convicted of racketeering also face longer stays in prison under the parole guidelines, Samuel added. "It gives prosecutors more leverage to coerce pleas to the underlying criminal acts, instead of having to go to trial for RICO."
Atlanta criminal defense lawyer Nick Lotito agreed that RICO can be a powerful tool for prosecutors.
"It can turn smaller, individualized cases into larger conspiracies," he said. "But it defies a little bit of logic to think of the Atlanta school system as a racketeering enterprise. It may fit the statute in legal terms, but I think people would be alarmed to learn that rather than having graduated from a public school system they graduated from a racketeering enterprise."
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