John Dougherty stands outside his South Philly home as it is raided by authorities. Credit: Steve Keeley on Twitter

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As federal investigators take aim at John Dougherty and IBEW Local 98, they could use a not-so-secret, ominous-sounding weapon: RICO.  

“It’s a buzzword,” said William DeStefano, chair of Stevens & Lee’s White Collar Defense and Investigations Group. “It’s a word that gets everybody’s sensibilities inflamed.”   

RICO stands for the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. It was passed in 1970 to take down organized crime, but it’s been applied has been used to target a wide range of organizations and individuals, including former Congressman Chaka Fattah. Here’s a breakdown of how RICO works and why it looks like the Feds could use it against Dougherty and IBEW Local 98.

How RICO works

Racketeering is, simply stated, certain crimes committed in an organized fashion. That organization can encompass almost anything, from the mob to a gang to a union to, basically, just your group of friends. Racketeering crimes also cover a wide swath of offenses. Some of the most common racketeering offenses are wire fraud, bribery and extortion, but murder and robbery can be charged under RICO, as well as misuse of passports and copyright infringement and dozens of other offenses.  

Why the Feds use RICO

The sentencing guidelines for RICO violations are stricter than those for many white collar offenses tried individually. The penalties for a count of bribery and mail fraud are not particularly onerous. But tie them together and prove the organizational aspect of RICO and the penalty could be up to 20 years in prison and heavier fines. Victims, DeStefano said, can also sue under RICO and get triple damages.

And the Feds charge people with RICO violations because RICO sounds serious. Imagine being a jury member and not knowing exactly what racketeering means. All you know is that the word sounds scary, like something bad must be going on. Then tie in the fact that all of it has been done under the auspices of an organization.

“It sometimes can be easier to prove,” DeStefano said. “It’s more dramatic for the jury. ‘They’re operating this organization through a pattern of racketeering activity.’ If you have the elements and can prove the elements, it might be easier.”

Best of all, the Feds only have to prove two instances of racketeering. Two equals a “pattern.”      

How RICO could fit J-Doc’s situation

The Inquirer has reported the Feds are looking into Doc and Local 98 for misuse of union funds, extortion, embezzlement and intimidation of contractors. Both embezzlement and extortion are eligible to be charged under RICO and depending on the particulars of misusing union funds, that allegation could fit under RICO, too.

Other times the Feds have used RICO

Earlier this year, Chaka Fattah was convicted on 23 counts of corruption, including one count of RICO. It was basically a charge that summed up all of the other charges he faced, including bribery, mail fraud and wire fraud. The “organization” to which Fattah belonged was his group of co-conspirators. Three co-defendants were also convicted.

In 2014, Philly’s infamous Narco Cops were also charged with RICO conspiracy. That one didn’t go over too well for the Feds. The six cops were found not guilty.

Mark Dent is a reporter/curator at BillyPenn. He previously worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State football and the Penn State administration. His...