- District Attorney Fani Willis is expanding her probe into former President Donald Trump.
- Willis has prosecuted high-profile racketeering cases.
- Experts familiar with state law say racketeering charges may be her best avenue to convict Trump.
The Georgia prosecutor pursuing one of the most high-stakes investigations in US history built her career by successfully using racketeering charges, typically employed against organized crime, to convict Atlanta public school teachers for conspiring to alter student test scores.
Those RICO cases, and a key hire of a racketeering law expert to her staff, offer a window into how experts believe she is likely to build any criminal case against Donald Trump and his allies in connection with efforts to overturn the state’s 2020 presidential election result.
Willis has hired a Georgia-based lawyer who wrote a national guide on RICO prosecutions, and legal experts familiar with state law believe racketeering charges may be her best avenue to convict Trump.
“I’m glad that she’s using him because he’s absolutely the best,” Clint Rucker, a former prosecutor that worked alongside Willis during the Atlanta teacher case, said of the RICO expert.
Willis is ramping up her 17-month investigation into Trump and whether he or his associates tried to interfere in the Georgia 2020 elections. Her probe has expanded to include looking into members of Trump’s inner circle and examining an alleged scheme to send a fake slate of electors to Georgia’s state Capitol in Atlanta in an attempt to overturn the election result.
Willis has hinted that she could decide whether to formally charge Trump as early as this fall. Potential state criminal charges against the former president could include election fraud solicitation, interference with the performance of election duties, and racketeering. Trump has repeatedly pushed back against the investigation and Willis.
“The young, ambitious, Radical Left Democrat ‘Prosecutor’ from Georgia, who is presiding over one of the most Crime Ridden and Corrupt places in the USA, Fulton County, has put together a Grand Jury to investigate an absolutely ‘PERFECT’ phone call to the Secretary of State,” Trump wrote on Truth Social, the social media platform he founded, in May.
Georgia lawyers told Insider about why the Atlanta cheating scandal — brought nearly a decade before Willis became Fulton County’s district attorney, while she was an assistant DA in the office — offers a glimpse into how her Trump investigation could turn into one of the biggest cases ever brought by a local prosecutor.
The Atlanta teacher case
In 2011, a Georgia state investigation concluded that dozens of educators had falsified standardized test results. The alleged cheating was believed to date back as far as 2001, according to state investigators. About 180 teachers and administrators were initially implicated in the scandal.
In 2013, a grand jury indicted 35 Atlanta public school educators and administrators on racketeering charges. Between 2005 and 2009, these individuals illegally altered and falsely certified students’ test answers, the indictment alleged.
Rucker said they worked countless hours to prepare for the trial that began in 2014.
“We worked together every day, from 8:30 in the morning to 7:30 o’clock at night, on weekends,” he said. “We canceled all our holidays, vacations, birthdays, kids events. We worked around the clock for almost two years to prepare the case.”
Bob Rubin, a criminal defense attorney who represented a former elementary school teacher in the cheating scandal, said he was initially surprised that Fulton County prosecutors charged his client and others with racketeering. This kind of crime is usually associated with criminal mobs or gang organizations. But it can also apply to an individual or group of individuals who conspire to carry out crimes.
Under Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, it is a crime for an individual to commit a pattern of criminal conduct or intimidate another individual to commit any crime. Typically, prosecutors use RICO laws to help them make a broader case against an individual on the series of crimes they have committed, and Georgia law also allows prosecutors to bring RICO charges even if the crimes are not able to be “indicted separately,” according to a report by the Brookings Institute.
In the case of the Atlanta school teachers, Willis argued that these teachers conspired to change the answers on their student’s standardized test scores to have more favorable test results in their 50,000-student school district.
Willis had students, parents and teachers testify before the jury on the high pressure environment that former Superintendent Beverly Hall created around test results. She also had former school teachers and staff who worked alongside of the defendants testify against them and explain how some of these defendants conspired to cheat. Willis presented evidence that some of the teachers on trial gave students answers to their standardized tests and how other former Atlanta Public School executives tried covering up the cheating.
Willis was also initially opposed to charging the teachers with racketeering, Rucker told Insider.
“She thought it was too complex, and she thought it was perhaps not necessary and perhaps even overcharging the case,” he said.
Rucker said then-Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard ultimately decided to pursue these charges.
Willis’ prosecutions on racketeering grounds would prove successful, and make her career. In 2015, 11 of the 12 school educators were convicted on racketeering charges. One of the defendants passed away while awaiting trial.
Willis’s office did not respond to Insider’s request for comment. Howard also did not respond to comment.
During the Atlanta teacher investigation, Howard decided to bring in John Floyd, a well-known Atlanta civil litigator who wrote a national guide on prosecuting state racketeering cases, to help on the case, Rucker said.
Willis later hired Floyd to assist in her investigation into Trump. Willis could use his expertise to help build her case to formally charge the former president with racketeering charges, legal experts say.
Floyd is a dedicated attorney and one of the best racketeering experts in Georgia and who also works on RICO cases nationally, said Richard Hyde, a former Georgia state investigator who helped expose the Atlanta cheating scandal.
“He’s one of the lawyers in the country that you don’t want to be on the other side of. He’s good. He will outwork anybody,” Hyde said.
If Willis is building a racketeering case against Trump, she’ll be relying on Floyd, he added.
Legal experts say Willis could charge Trump on racketeering charges, and point to evidence that includes the calls he made to election officials after the 2020 presidential election.
For instance, Willis could use a call Trump made on December 23, 2020, to Frances Watson, who worked as a chief investigator of the investigations division for the Georgia Secretary of State, where he urged her to investigate election fraud. Then, on January 2, 2021, Trump called Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and pressured him to “find” just enough votes to swing the Georgia vote.
Raffensperger previously testified before the US House select committee investigating the January 6 insurrection that he felt pressured by Trump and his other associates to overturn his state’s election results, despite overwhelming evidence that Biden won the election in Georgia.
Willis could possibly make the argument that Trump tried to intimidate election officials and engaged in a pattern of criminal misconduct in order to interfere in Georgia’s 2020 elections or to solicit election fraud.
The Fulton County district attorney could also broaden a racketeering case against Trump’s associates who helped him in these efforts.
Rubin, who has monitored the developments in Willis’s investigation into Trump but is not involved in the case, told Insider that RICO is the best option to successfully prosecute him.
“I’m not surprised by it,” he said. “In fact, I think it’s probably the only way she could try it.”