ATLANTA - Hours before former President Donald Trump is expected to turn himself in to Georgia authorities, he's made a big change to his legal team in the Peach State.
Trump has dropped Drew Findling, the lawyer who had led his defense, with prominent Atlanta-based attorney Steve Sadow. Sadow has represented several high-profile clients during their legal troubles in Georgia including T.I., former Georgia linebacker Adam Anderson, and Gunna before the rapper pleaded guilty.
"I have been retained to represent President Trump in the Fulton County, Georgia case. The president should never have been indicted. He is innocent of all the charges brought against him," Sadow said in a statement. "We look forward to the case being dismissed or, if necessary, an unbiased, open-minded jury finding the president not guilty. Prosecutions intended to advance or serve the ambitions and careers of political opponents of the president have no place in our justice system."
Sadow takes the place of another high-profile criminal defense attorney, Drew Findling, who had represented Trump as recently as Monday when his bond terms were negotiated. But by Thursday Findling was no longer part of the team, according to a person with knowledge of the change who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Both Trump and Young Thug, who is also being prosecuted by Willis, face charges connected to Georgia's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO.
What is RICO?
The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, was developed to fight organized crime. It was enacted in 1970 after being signed into law by President Richard Nixon.
Federally, RICO was originally was intended to be used to combat the Mafia. It draws from a list of 27 federal crimes and eight state crimes committed and repeated over the course of a 10-year period. Those crimes can include fraud, theft, computer crimes, embezzlement, credit scams, investment schemes, human trafficking, illegal gambling, bribery, kidnapping, murder, money laundering, counterfeiting, and various drug charges.
The Justice Department has used RICO to dismantle multiple crime families including the Gambinos, and has also helped to weed out corruption in several city police departments, including those in Key West and Los Angeles. Prosecutors have also used RICO to try to dismantle several street gangs, and helped in prosecuting businesses that break federal law.
Within a few years of the federal law taking effect, states began passing their own RICO laws. Generally speaking, RICO laws allow prosecutors to charge multiple people who commit separate crimes while working toward a common goal.
What is different about Georgia’s RICO Act?
Georgia's RICO Act, adopted in 1980, makes it a crime to participate in, acquire or maintain control of an "enterprise" through a "pattern of racketeering activity" or to conspire to do so. It’s important to note that the alleged scheme does not have to have been successful for a RICO charge to stick.
Former DeKalb County District Attorney J. Tom Morgan, who was a prosecutor for more than 25 years, says Georgia’s racketeering law differs from federal RICO charges.
"Anyone indicted under that RICO charge … they face a far greater liability in Georgia than they do under Mr. Smith," said Morgan. "Under Georgia law, all you have to prove is two felonies, and those felonies occurred in Fulton County."
And crimes in other counties can also be included in a RICO charge. That was something Willis emphasized during a press conference late Monday evening, following the release of the 97-page, 41-count indictment.
"As you examine the indictment, you will see acts that are identified as ‘overt acts’ and those that are identified as ‘predicate acts," sometimes called ‘acts of racketeering activity,’" Willis said.
Willis explained that predicate acts may not be illegal on their own in Georgia, but under the RICO act, they were "in furtherance of the conspiracy" and "furtherance of the criminal enterprise."
Georgia’s RICO statutes are much broader in that the criminal "enterprise" does not have to be around as long. Georgia is one of only 33 states that has its own RICO statutes. However, in both state and federal laws, a pattern of criminal enterprise has to be established.
"You can include crimes in other states, in other jurisdictions in a RICO indictment," Morgan explained.
RICO used in other Georgia trials
DA Willis is no stranger to using RICO. During her tenure, she has used RICO to indict members of YSL, a violent criminal street gang affiliated with the Bloods gang.
"I’m a fan of RICO," Willis said during a news conference in August 2022 as she announced a RICO indictment against more than two dozen alleged gang members.
Willis has said jurors want to know all the facts behind an alleged crime and that a RICO indictment enables prosecutors to provide a complete picture of all the alleged illegal activity. A narrative introduction allows prosecutors to tell a story that can include a lot of detailed information that might not relate to specific crimes, but is relevant to the broader alleged scheme.
"The jury will go in with a RICO indictment, I would guess, in a case like this, alleging many, many, many crimes. They only have to find two of them to find the defendant guilty of RICO. And that’s a 20-year felony," Morgan said.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump looks on during the Alabama Republican Party’s 2023 Summer meeting at the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel on August 4, 2023 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo by Julie Bennett/Getty Images)
What are the penalties for RICO?
Violating RICO carries a maximum of 20 years and a fine that is "greater of $25,000 or three times the amount of pecuniary gain."
"You can have a RICO, and then you can have the other counts spelled out in their own individual counts. Or, you can just have a RICO indictment," Morgan said.
Under RICO, victims impacted can seek civil recourse without the defendant being able to hide behind bankruptcy to skirt judgment or restitution.
"The biggest difference is how many crimes you can encompass. In federal, you can’t typically encompass state crimes. In Georgia, you can include federal crimes in your Georgia indictment," Morgan said.
Trump and his allies will now experience Georgia’s RICO Act firsthand. The former president is expected to surrender Thursday night.