Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act

The RICO Act was designed to put an end to the enormous illegal profits enjoyed by the Mafia.

In the wake of Prohibition’s repeal, Organized crimeorganized crime families remained powerful by engaging in other forms of illegal trade, including narcotics and prostitution. Harry Anslinger, director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, was the first federal law-enforcement official to challenge the nation’s drug rings, but he got no cooperation from Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director J. Edgar Hoover. By 1950, organized crime family chiefs Joseph Bonanno, Joseph Profaci, Vincent Mangano, and Gaetano “Tommy” Gagliano ran their empires from behind the scenes with a free hand. Of the period’s major Mafia bosses, only Frank Costello was known to the public.Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970

Senator John L. McClellan, an Arkansas Democrat, chaired a Senate committee in 1957 to investigate organized crime. By 1970, with the help of Notre Dame law professor George Robert Blakey, McClellan had crafted the details of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations section of the Organized Crime Control Act (1970). Envisioned as a weapon against the Mafia, the broad provisions of the RICO Act enabled the courts to put in prison not only major mob chieftains but also the junk-bond dealer Michael Milken and other prominent figures from financial institutions. This broad use has prompted criticism from some lawyers and law professors, such as Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz.


The RICO Act’s primary target was the Mafia, which engaged in extortion, bribery, loan sharking, murder, drug trafficking, and prostitution. The Mafia’s long practice of these crimes constituted a pattern that enabled prosecution of the so-called family godfathers. The act outlaws a broad range of illicit business activities, such as money laundering, acquiring or manipulating a business for racketeering purposes, and conspiring to do so.

In any RICO prosecution, a pattern of racketeering is identified by two features: relatedness and continuity. Relatedness emerges in a series of criminal actions that have the same purposes, results, participants, victims, or methods of commission. Continuity is established when a criminal act is repeated for a year or more. Before a RICO case can be made, it is necessary to prove that the individual crimes constituting the larger pattern of criminal activity were committed.

Prominent among the civil violations of the RICO Act are Fraudmail and wire fraud, bank fraud, and extortion; although the RICO Act was envisioned by Congress mainly as a weapon in criminal cases, since the 1980’s the number of civil actions filed under the act has far exceeded the number of criminal filings. The RICO Act’s civil remedies provision appears in section 1964(c):

Any person injured in his business or property by reason of a violation of section 1962 of this chapter may sue therefore in any appropriate United States district court and shall recover threefold the damages he sustains and the cost of the suit, including reasonable attorney’s fees.


The RICO Act remained unused against the Mafia until 1979, when two New York FBI agents, James Kossler, JamesKossler and Jules Bonavolonta, JulesBonavolonta, were ordered by their boss, Neil Welch, to attend the lectures that Professor Blakey was giving at Cornell on defeating the Mafia. Blakey stressed wiretaps and the bugs allowed under Title 3 of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, and the two agents realized these could be powerful tools against the Mafia, which was then realizing estimated annual illegal gains of $25 billion. The appointment in 1981 of Ronald Goldstock as head of New York State’s Organized Crime Task Force led to the first infiltration of a Mafia family, and the attack on the families got a big boost from the appointment in 1983 of Rudy Giuliani, RudyGiuliani as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Two Task Force agents achieved a coup when, in 1983, they planted a bug in the Jaguar in which Salvatore Avellino chauffeured Long Island’s garbage boss, Antonio “Ducks” Corallo. This success was followed by bugging the hangouts of leaders in the Colombo, Gambino, and Genovese families. The information recorded by these devices was lethal for the mob, and in February, 1985, a federal grand jury in Manhattan handed down a fifteen-count indictment leading to the arrest of Anthony Salerno, Carmine Persico, Gennaro Langella, Antonio Corallo, Salvatore Santoro, Christopher Furnari, Ralph Scopo, and Anthony Indelicato. Giuliani chose an assistant, Michael Chertoff, as lead prosecutor, and on November 19, 1986, after six days of deliberations, the eight defendants were found guilty on all 151 charges. Indelicato was sentenced to forty years in prison; the others received sentences of one hundred years with no possibility of parole. The RICO Act’s first major test was a success.

Other successes were to follow. The infamous John Gotti, head of the Gambino family, was tried unsuccessfully three times but was finally convicted in 1992 on racketeering and murder charges. He died in prison in 2002. After rebuilding the Bonanno family, Joseph “the Ear” Massino became the first New York boss to cooperate with the government and was convicted of RICO violations in 2004. One dramatic event clouded the history of RICO prosecutions: Federal judge Jack B. Weinstein overturned the convictions of two rogue detectives on the grounds that no continuing criminal enterprise had been proved at trial, because prosecutors had failed to prove continuity between crimes committed in New York and others in Las Vegas.

Further Reading

  • Barrett, Wayne. Rudy. New York: Basic Books, 2000. The story of Rudy Giuliani’s success in fighting the mob in New York City using the RICO Act.
  • Blum, Howard. How the FBI Broke the Mob. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993. Delves into the FBI investigation of the Colombo crime family, among others.
  • Bonavoluta, Jules, and Brian Duffy. The Good Guys: How We Turned the FBI ’Round–and Finally Broke the Mob. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981. Bonavoluta was an early FBI convert to the importance of the RICO Act and a key player in federal mob investigations.
  • Raab, Selwyn. Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Families. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005. Smoothly written account of its subject in over seven hundred pages by a top investigative reporter.

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