By Geoffrey Nathan
In Texas, corruption is classed as a type of racketeering. This comes under the RICO – Racketeer-Influence and Corrupt Organization – Act. Corruption means that a business or act is run illegally as part of organized crime. In other words, criminal organizations like the mafia are not able to profit from a legitimate business (which counts as extortion) or to run a legitimate business of their own. The goal of the RICO Act is to make sure that criminal organizations no longer have an income flow, as this is what they use in order to fund their various other illegal activities. The same rules stand for public corruption, in which a government official abuses their position of power for financial gain.
A number of different criminal acts come under the RICO Act. The most common offenses include violation of state statutes, bribery, theft, embezzlement, fraud, bankruptcy, drug trafficking, criminal copyright infringement, money laundering, acts of terrorism and bringing in illegal aliens for financial gain. This list demonstrates the breadth of corruption and how much it can span.
Texas Laws and Penalties
The penalties for corruption are harsh and vary depending on the nature of the crime itself. However, in most cases, a custodial sentence will be handed down, followed by parole and/or supervised probation. There are usually also very substantial fines, restitution if any money was taken and a community service.
Texas Corruption Penalties
The penalties under the RICO Act are very harsh. If any organized criminal activity takes place, then the offense is immediately a charge above that of the seriousness of the actual offense. For instance, if the act itself is a Class A misdemeanor, the penalty would be a state jail felony. The exception is with first degree felonies, as this is the highest type of felony that exists.
Why RICO Exists
The original intent of RICO was to allow for the successful prosecution of high-ranking members of the Mafia. Previously, prosecutors could get convictions for the lower-ranking members who actually carried out criminal activity, but found it difficult to prosecute the leaders who ordered the activity. For example, the mobster who hijacked a truck could be convicted, but the other members of the Mafia family who profited from the heist usually were not. RICO gave the U.S. Attorney’s office a way to successfully prosecute members of an organization for the criminal activity of their associates.
How It Works
To successfully prosecute for RICO it must be shown that members of a criminal enterprise engaged in a pattern of racketeering that had an effect on interstate commerce. Those elements need to be broken down for an explanation:
- Criminal Enterprise – Any organization that works together over time and has an organizational structure with one or more persons making decisions for the organization. The enterprise can have either an illegal or a legal purpose.
- Pattern of Racketeering – The members of the organization must have engaged in ongoing illegal activity. At least two predicate crimes (explained below) must have been committed. Two separate and unrelated crimes are not considered a pattern of racketeering. There must be some kind of ongoing scheme of criminal activity.
- Effect on Interstate Commerce – This merely refers to anything that has any effect on commerce when that effect is not entirely limited to one state. Any economic activity of any substance normally meets the criteria.
RICO charges cannot be filed against people who engage in any criminal activity. The statute lists particular criminal activity. These underlying crimes that can trigger RICO charges are called predicate crimes. Some examples of the listed crimes are:
- Money laundering
- Securities Fraud
- Dealing in obscene material
- Drug trafficking
The above list is not comprehensive. As you can see from what is listed, the possible predicate crimes for RICO charges span a wide range of criminal activity and include white collar crimes.
Use by the U.S. Attorney’s Office
RICO carries extremely stiff penalties and intrudes on traditional areas of state law. Because of this the U.S. Attorney has a policy of using RICO sparingly and will only do so if at least one of the following is met:
- Only charging for the underlying crimes would be inadequate to reflect the nature and extent of the criminal activity;
- If convicted, RICO would allow for appropriate sentencing in a way that the underlying crimes would not;
- Related criminal acts would otherwise have to be prosecuted in separate jurisdictions;
- Without the use of RICO, prosecution would be unsuccessful;
- Forfeiture under RICO would be appropriate for the criminal activity;
- The underlying crimes are state crimes and the local prosecutors are unable or unlikely to prosecute; or,
- The underlying crimes are state crimes involving government or other significant officials the prosecution of whom would cause special problems for local prosecutors.
Texas Statute of Limitations
The statute of limitations under the RICO Act is incredibly complicated. When the Act was first brought in, there was no statute of limitations at all, as the severity of the crime is raised one level due to the corrupt nature. However, following a number of cases, it was agreed that the statute of limitation has been put at four years, but this can be accrued and tolled. Generally, the statute is tolled when the accused is in prison or out of state, but because of the nature of corruption charges, other reasons can be brought forward for tolling as well.
Key Texas Corruption Cases
- Tom DeLay convicted of money laundering in Texas – DeLay has been convicted of funneling $190,000 to fellow Republicans through corporate donations. This means he violated the rules that state companies are not allowed to contribute to the campaign of a politician. His conviction was on money laundering, for which he could receive 99 years in prison. Additionally, he was charged on conspiracy to launder money, which could lead to 20 years in prison. DeLay continues to maintain his innocence. Interestingly, this is not the first time DeLay has been the subject of such charges and investigations.
- Judge, DA and lawyer accused in Texas corruption case – In 2005, Hermila Hernandez was shot and killed by Amit Livingston. Following a plea deal, he was sent down for 23 years. However, he suddenly vanished after Abel Limas, the judge presiding over his case, allowed him 60 days to get his affairs in order. Judge Limas, DA Armando Villalobos and Hernandez’s lawyer have been accused of taking money to allow the escape to happen. Limas has pleaded guilty on these charges and is now helping prosecutors to build a case against the other two. Villalobos is accused of extortion, bribery and other corruption charges.
- South Texas corruption scandals spur reflection – What started as a small case of corruption quickly escalated into a huge racketeering unit, smuggling huge amounts of drugs. The charges involved a huge amount of public officials, including former police officer and son of the local sheriff, who received a 17 year prison sentence for his involvement in the case.
- Public corruption: courtroom for sale – One of the most shocking corruption cases in Texas involved the entire judicial system of the state. A former state judge received a six year sentences after it emerged that he took kickbacks and bribes to influence his rulings. Abel Limas, before becoming a state judge, was a police officer and also practiced law. During his eight years as a state judge, he used his courtroom as a way to line his own pockets and make huge financial profits.