Statute Enacted to Fight Organized Crime Used in Academic Fraud Case

Prosecutors in Georgia successfully used a statute originally conceived as a way to combat organized crime, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, against a group of teachers and school administrators who were accused of inflating students’ standardized test scores. Georgia v. Hall, et al, No. 13SC117954, indictment (Ga. Super. Ct., Fulton Co., March 29, 2013). “Organized crime” typically refers to criminal activity undertaken through some group, such as a “gang” or “mob.” In the present case, prosecutors claimed that the Atlanta Public School System (APS) served as the “enterprise” for the alleged offenses, within the meaning of the state RICO statute. Hall, indictment at 13; Ga. Code § 16-14-3(6). Twelve of the original thirty-five defendants went to trial, and eleven were convicted of racketeering, false statements, and other offenses.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 established a series of goals for public schools, based on students’ performance on standardized tests. If a school’s test scores are high, the school may be eligible for a “monetary award.” Hall at 10. Schools with poor performance are subject to “progressively more involved state participation in the school’s management.” Id. State investigators began looking into unusual increases in test scores in APS schools, which reportedly led to the resignation of the APS superintendent in 2011. The state’s review found a widespread pattern of inflating test scores. A grand jury spent months investigating the case before returning an indictment in March 2013.

The federal RICO Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1961 et seq., took effect in 1970. It allows the prosecution of individuals found to be leaders of a criminal “enterprise” to be charged for offenses committed by their subordinates. Federal prosecutors used the law during the 1970s, with varying levels of success, to go after members of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, the Genovese crime family, and others. Since then, the scope of RICO prosecutions has expanded considerably. More than half of the states have enacted their own versions of RICO, including Texas in 1977, Tex. Pen. Code § 71.01 et seq., and Georgia in 1980, Ga. Code § 16-14-1 et seq.

The Hall indictment charged thirty-five individuals, including the former APS superintendent, with sixty-five counts related to RICO. Prosecutors described a school system in which the superintendent set higher test performance standards than those required by the state, and informed teachers and administrators “that excuses for not meeting targets would not be tolerated.” Hall at 14. The pressure, prosecutors alleged, led some teachers and principals to cheat. The indictment also notes that APS officials had a financial incentive to maximize test scores, since it would result in a “substantial bonus” for them. Id.

Twelve of the defendants went to trial. Jury selection began in August 2014 and took six weeks. Testimony lasted six months, concluding in February. The jury deliberated for eight days before convicting eleven defendants of various charges, including racketeering, false statements, false swearing, and influencing witnesses. Sentences ranged from seven years in prison for two defendants, to six months of weekend confinement for one defendant. Most defendants received one- or two-year sentences. The judge later reduced the seven-year sentences to three years.

These blog posts are meant to be illustrative only. Unless expressly stated to the contrary herein, these matters are not the result of any legal work of Michael J. Brown, but are used to communicate a particular point of view. Michael J. Brown does not claim credit for any legal work done by any lawyer or law firm either generally or specifically, with respect to the matters contained in this blog.

Michael J. Brown, a board-certified criminal defense attorney, fights for the rights of people charged with alleged offenses in west Texas state and federal courts. To schedule a confidential consultation with a knowledgeable and experienced criminal justice advocate, please contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157.

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