Valdosta Daily Times

State News

April 2, 2013

RICO presents challenges in Atlanta cheating case

ATLANTA — The criminal prosecution of dozens of Atlanta Public Schools educators presents considerable challenges for both prosecutors and defense attorneys because of the use of a complex law initially designed to dismantle organized crime, legal experts say.

Thirty-five educators within the Atlanta school system, including former Superintendent Dr. Beverly Hall, were named in a 65-count indictment last week that alleges a broad conspiracy to cheat, conceal cheating or retaliate against whistleblowers in an effort to bolster student test scores and, as a result, receive bonuses for improved student performance. Prosecutors set a Tuesday deadline for all defendants to surrender to authorities.

Jail spokeswoman Tracy Flanagan said that no defendants had been able to turn themselves in as of late Monday afternoon because of a delay in the filing of the arrest warrants in the case, though the warrants were filed later in the evening. At least a few had planned to surrender Monday.

Each defendant is charged with violating Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute, also known as RICO. The law is modeled on the federal statute, which Congress enacted in 1970 to take down mobsters.

Criminal RICO cases can be extremely complex with multiple elements to prove beyond the basic crime. That includes establishing a criminal enterprise, in this case the Atlanta Public Schools system, and a pattern of criminal behavior.

“It gets very complicated when you try to describe all of this to a jury and to convince a jury that a person is guilty of all of this by a reasonable doubt,” said Jeffrey E. Grell, a former assistant attorney general in Minnesota and expert on RICO cases. “Particularly in a RICO case, because you have people pointing fingers of blame all over, I’m sure it’s going to be very complicated.”

Grell, who teaches at the University of Minnesota Law School, said the inherent nature of the law — to prosecute “people who don’t get their hands dirty” — also makes it a challenge to secure a conviction. Although the defendant doesn’t have to engage in the crime directly, prosecutors must show the defendant was directly operating or managing the criminal enterprise, Grell said.

“The critical issue is going to be intent,” Grell said. “All of these defendants, the prosecution will have to prove they knowingly and intentionally set out to defraud and engage in cheating. I’m sure some of these administrators and defendants will say they did not know what was going on.”

Grell said RICO cases can be expensive, especially with multiple defendants and multiple allegations of criminal wrongdoing.

The defendants include high-level administrators, principals, assistant principals, teachers, testing coordinators, a school secretary and a school improvement specialist. Hall, the former superintendent, has long denied any knowledge of the cheating.

A 2011 state investigation revealed widespread cheating by nearly 180 educators in Atlanta schools dating back to 2001. Investigators said educators gave answers to students or changed answers on tests after they were turned in, and teachers who tried to report it faced retaliation, creating a culture of “fear and intimidation.”

The tests were the key measure the state used to determine whether it met the federal No Child Left Behind law. Schools with good test scores get extra federal dollars to spend in the classroom or on teacher bonuses.

On Friday, in announcing the indictment, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard used the story of an Atlanta third-grader to underscore the importance of the case, with teachers and administrators more focused on test scores than student improvement. He said the girl received the worst score in her reading class in 2006 and yet, when she took an assessment test, she passed with flying colors. The girl is now in ninth grade, reading at a fifth-grade level.

The high emotions surrounding the case and the extensive media publicity will also pose challenges for prosecutors and defense attorneys.

It’s likely that one or more defendants will seek to have the case moved out of Atlanta or to have jurors brought in from another part of the state, which is allowed under Georgia law, said Ron Carlson, professor of law emeritus at the University of Georgia. Some of the defendants may also ask to have their trials be separate from the others in the hopes of strengthening their case, Carlson said.

And the stakes will increase the pressure on everyone involved in the case.

“I consider this one of the most important, one of the seminal developments in the history of American education law. It’s the largest school teaching scandal yet recorded in the country,” Carlson said. “A high-profile case like this one puts public attention and public pressure on the various moves made by prosecutors and defense attorneys.”

Morgan Cloud, a professor at Emory University School of Law, said prosecutors will also have to work to explain the RICO law to jurors.

“When we think of racketeers we think of the Gambino family in New York ... people who engage in murder and drug dealing and prostitution,” Cloud said.

1
Text Only
State News
  • Ga. online tuition dropping

    Jenni Small has good reason for avoiding 8 a.m. world literature classes at Dalton State College in northern Georgia. The 23-year-old works night shifts as an operator for carpet manufacturer Shaw while finishing her bachelor’s degree in mathematics.
    Instead of heading straight to class from work, she uses eCore — an online system that focuses on “core” classes that every Georgia state college or university student must take — for 1 or 2 courses each semester.

    April 21, 2014

  • Vidalia Onion Battle_Rich copy.jpg Vidalia onion farmer back in court over ship date

    One of Georgia’s most prominent Vidalia onion farmers is going back to court in an effort to stop the state agriculture commissioner from fining growers who ship the famous sweet onions before a certain date.

    April 15, 2014 1 Photo

  • GEORGIA PORTS_Rich copy.jpg Ga. ports on track to smash cargo records

    Georgia’s seaports are on track to finish the 2014 fiscal year with record cargo volumes as third-quarter numbers show big growth capped by the ports’ busiest month ever in terms of total tonnage being shipped to and from the docks.

    April 14, 2014 1 Photo

  • Gov. Deal signs prisoner re-entry bill into law

    Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed a bill into law on Sunday that is aimed at reducing recidivism among ex-offenders and helping them successfully re-enter society.

    April 14, 2014

  • Deal reports $3.9M in cash for re-election bid

    Gov. Nathan Deal on Monday reported $3.9 million in cash for his re-election bid, after raising about $84,000 in 11 days since the legislative session ended.

    April 8, 2014

  • photoscape_eagle.jpg Ga. eagle population continues growth

    During a late-March aerial survey by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, more than 25 bald eagle nests were counted in northeastern Georgia. All but three represented viable adults and chicks.

    April 7, 2014 1 Photo

  • Private company selling Georgia accident reports

    Selling car crash reports to a private company has saved time and money according to state officials, but some drivers cite concerns over retrieval costs and privacy.

    April 7, 2014

  • Forecasters issue flood watch in Ga.

    The National Weather Service has issued a flood watch covering much of the state.

    April 6, 2014

  • Georgia wants private companies to manage student housing

    Georgia is on course to become one of the nation’s largest experiments in privatized college dorms, but it’s unclear whether the changes will lower students’ bills at a time when university costs are soaring.

    April 6, 2014

  • Ga. misses food stamp backlog deadline

    State officials say Georgia missed the deadline to clear backlogged food stamp cases, putting millions of dollars of federal funding at risk.

    April 5, 2014

Top News
Poll

Given the amount of rain recently, what's your favorite “rain” song?

Singing in the Rain
Purple Rain
Have You Ever Seen the Rain?
November Rain
Rainy Night in Georgia
Other
     View Results