On Friday, March 29, 2013, a grand jury in Fulton County, Ga., returned indictments against 35 educators in the Atlanta public school system, in connection with a test-cheating scandal spanning nearly a decade.
The scandal, described as the largest of its kind in the country’s history, made national news. Prosecutors said teachers, principals, administrators and testing coordinators had conspired to fraudulently boost Atlanta schools’ performance on standardized tests, bringing accolades and financial rewards to district leaders. For example, the superintendent, Dr. Beverly Hall, earned more than $500,000 in bonuses during her tenure.
The educators were charged under Georgia laws against racketeering—the state alleged the systematic cheating amounted to a criminal conspiracy. Georgia’s racketeering laws are modeled on the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations act, enacted in 1970. The law, often referred to by the acronym RICO, was initially intended to give the government new tools to prosecute criminal organizations like the Mafia. In the years after its passage, a number of states passed their own racketeering laws, often referred to as “little” or “baby” RICOs. Pennsylvania’s were enacted in 1972. At the time, the state legislature repeated the rationale of the U.S. Congress, noting that “organized crime is a highly sophisticated, diversified, and widespread phenomenon” draining “billions of dollars from the national economy” each year.
Last month, Pennsylvania’s racketeering laws were invoked in a sweeping criminal complaint against Harrisburg’s former Mayor Stephen Reed. Topping the list of 17 charges, which encompassed 499 counts of individual crimes, were two counts of “corrupt organizations,” each of them a first-degree felony. Much like the charges against the Atlanta educators, the complaint claimed that Reed ran the affairs of the Harrisburg Authority, a borrowing entity ostensibly separate from city government, as an ongoing criminal enterprise. Prosecutors alleged Reed had engaged in a “pattern of racketeering activity,” primarily through acts of theft and bribery, beginning on Christmas Eve, 1990, and continuing until he left office, at the beginning of 2010. (The start date, though not explained in the complaint, is not arbitrary: on that date, Reed wrote a memo to the Authority board, requesting the creation of a “special projects fund” for the exclusive use of the city.)
The charges were the result of an ongoing probe by a statewide investigating grand jury. In their report, incorporated as part of the complaint, jurors claimed to have uncovered a “Reed model” of issuing debt, then diverting proceeds to illegitimate projects, while creating fees for a “coterie” of select professionals. The report described these borrowings as misguided in and of themselves, referring to the “crushing weight” of debt incurred on Reed’s watch by the city and related entities. But it also alleged various forms of theft, including theft that personally enriched Reed, who was said to have been hoarding Western and other artifacts bought with city money at his home and in a private facility. In one case, Reed allegedly bribed city councilors to get them to approve a new borrowing.
Do the charges mean Reed was a kind of local Don Corleone, running city government like a Harrisburg crime family? Not exactly. The racketeering claim may partly be an effort to solve a statute-of-limitations problem—under the law, prosecutors can bring charges for older crimes, as long as they are linked to more recent behavior. “You can reach back to earlier acts, as long as the later acts took place within the statute of limitations,” Robert Power, an associate dean at Widener University’s Commonwealth Law School and a former federal prosecutor, told me. Initially, Pennsylvania courts viewed the state’s racketeering laws as excluding cases like Reed’s. But, perhaps because they provided such powerful tools, in the mid-1990s they were amended to expressly cover cases not traditionally thought of as organized crime. Similarly, federal prosecutors have used RICO to pursue a wide variety of targets, including public officials and financial institutions.
Not everyone is happy about this broader application. “The RICO law frightens many lawyers and judges,” a 1979 article in Newsweek reported. “They worry about language so loosely drawn that it lets the government sweep even smalltime, white-collar defendants and public officials into the same fit as underworld hit men.” “It’s a vehicle to drag in more people for more crimes,” Power said. “A person involved in a relatively small part of the crime can be charged with crimes they’ve never even heard of.” Defense lawyers for the Atlanta educators made much the same argument, suggesting that prosecutors had overreached in bringing racketeering charges. A former federal prosecutor in Georgia, speaking to the New York Times after 11 of 12 defendants were found guilty at trial, wondered whether the state had “killed a fly with the proverbial sledgehammer.”
In Reed’s case, the racketeering charges also have a narrative aim, having to do less with the consequences of his borrowings than with their underlying psychology. What the prosecution has tried to do is tell a story linking his acts together under a single, organizing purpose. To this end, the grand jury report portrayed Reed’s artifact buying not as a project to draw tourism, as the mayor once claimed, but as an almost pathological addiction. In one passage, it paraphrased Randy King, a former aide of the mayor’s, as describing the artifact purchases as a “therapeutic personal endeavor—a personal means of stress management.” On the basis of such testimony, jurors concluded that the “prudent stewardship and innovative thinking which Reed brought to his office early on gave way to a use of public money and other resources to gratify his own interests at the city’s expense.”
Reed’s defense, in turn, has begun to tell the story of a different sort of addiction. “He loved his job as mayor and he poured his heart and soul into it,” his attorney said the morning of his arraignment. Or, as Reed told WITF television for a 1997 documentary, “There is no personal Stephen Reed separate from Mayor Reed. They’re one and the same.” No doubt such claims of self-sacrifice are in some sense true. The question is what Reed expected from the city in return.