Updated news on the Gambino, Genovese, Bonanno, Lucchese and Colombo Organized Crime Families of New York City.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

They Call It RICO and It Is Sweeping

Thursday's big takedown of alleged mobsters highlights one of the nation's most powerful and sweeping laws: the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.
Now in its 41st year, RICO was passed in 1970 to pursue the Mafia as a whole, tying the big bosses to the crimes of their underlings by claiming they were all part of a "criminal enterprise." Prosecutors have used RICO to pursue some of the highest-profile organized-crime families, including the Gambinos and Genoveses, though the conviction rate has been mixed.
The law allows federal prosecutors to stitch together crimes going back many years, from extortion and loan sharking to murder, in a single case. It is easier for them to convict mob defendants when they wrap in evidence of the "broader context in which the crime was committed, along with the pattern of conduct that led up to the crime," said Samuel Buell, a professor at Duke University School of Law.
RICO's reach has expanded well beyond the mob in recent years. Businesses can be considered enterprises subject to the law, said Peter Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University, in Michigan. Victims of an alleged fraud can use RICO to file civil suits and recover triple the amount of damages they suffered. The Gulf of Mexico oil disaster has prompted civil racketeering suits. Some alleged conspirators of Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff have been charged under RICO, as have tobacco companies and prominent political figures.
Over time, Mr. Henning noted, the law has become controversial. "RICO is often criticized because of its use in civil cases to deal with business disputes that have nothing to do with mob activity," he said.
RICO's first big test came in 1979, when the law was used to prosecute the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang in California. The bikers were acquitted. With their long hair and tattoos, they didn't look like an organized-crime enterprise to the jury.
After Frank "Funzi" Tieri was found guilty on racketeering charges and convicted as head of the Genovese crime family in November 1980, prosecutors had their road map. By 1986, they had major cases pending against 17 of the country's 24 families.
In New York in 1985, prosecutors for Rudolph Giuliani, then the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, won indictments of the heads of the city's five Mafia families. The case was different from other RICO actions being brought against specific crime families at the time in that Mr. Giuliani's office sought to connect all five families in one coordinated enterprise.
Before the case went to trial, Philip Rastelli, head of the Bonanno family, was granted a separate trial, in which he was later convicted, and Paul "Big Paulie" Castellano, head of the Gambino family, was assassinated that December in front of Spark's Steak House in midtown Manhattan in a hit set up by John Gotti. Mr. Giuliani handed the prosecution—which at that point included the three other bosses and a handful of their top soldiers—off to a young assistant, Michael Chertoff, who two decades later became the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security.
The trial was colorful if grim. Carmine "The Snake" Persico, the boss of the Colombo family, acted as his own attorney, telling the judge, "I've had quite a bit of experience with the federal government." He was convicted along with two other mob bosses, "Fat Tony" Salerno of the Genovese family and "Tony Ducks" Corallo of the Lucchese organization. They were each sentenced to 100 years in prison.
Mr. Gotti was acquitted in a racketeering trial in Brooklyn and eventually would be dubbed the "Teflon don" after winning acquittals in other cases. In 1992, he was convicted in another racketeering trial and sentenced to life in prison, where he died in 2002.
The law's author, Notre Dame law professor G. Robert Blakey, was said to have named RICO after Edward G. Robinson's gangster in the 1930s film "Little Caesar." Over the years, Mr. Blakey has demurred from confirming or denying the story.



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