Al-Arian faces tough mob law

There are the wiretaps. There is the Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s family-like hierarchy. There are the alleged “front” organizations, one of which is USF.

A good read of Sami Al-Arian’s federal indictment leaves at least one unmistakable feeling: The government is accusing Al-Arian of being the godfather.

Seem like a stretch? When Al-Arian walks into the courtroom today for his bail hearing, he will sit opposite Walter Furr, the deputy chief attorney for organized crime, who is prosecuting the case for the government.

But Mafia buffs will find an even deeper connection. Al-Arian will be tried using the Racketeering Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act, better known as RICO.

The act itself was drafted with the expressed purpose of breaking up underground organizations. As a part of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970, it was developed by Notre Dame professor Robert Blakey. However, the idea for the bill may have first been developed years before the Mafia became a nuisance for law enforcement, which watched with bruised egos as underworld leaders developed multimillion-dollar illegal enterprises.

It has been reported that Blakey, considered an expert in drafting laws on such constitutionally shady areas as wiretap surveillance, wrote the RICO law as a tribute to the slain Robert Kennedy, who was known for his stern anti-Mafia stance. Critics of the law gleefully point out that such a tribute is misguided in that much of the Kennedy wealth was gained by family patriarch Joseph Kennedy in illegal prohibition-era dealings with Mafia members.

The RICO law allows for racketeering convictions. But it goes much further than that. It allows a jury to convict a person for being a member of a criminal conspiracy. Therefore, if the government can prove that a person is a member of a criminal organization such as the Mafia, he or she may be convicted for crimes committed by the organization, even if that person is not present or has little knowledge of the actual event.

Some critics like a more simple definition. They say, according to the rule, if a reputed gang member talks to someone who has committed a crime then, in a RICO case, that person can be sent to prison. Critics have called it unconstitutional.

The RICO statute was used on several gangland figures. However, the most famous was probably John Gotti, reputed head of the Gambino crime family. In the mid-1980s, Gotti earned the nickname “the Teflon Don” for his ability to shake off governmental prosecution. But, in 1992, with the aid of Mafia turncoat Sammy “the Bull” Gravano, prosecutors launched a massive RICO case against Gotti, and he was sent to prison for life. He died behind bars in 2002.

Critics argue that the RICO law paves the way for the FBI and other government organizations to use any of a number of means of surveillance, many of which are considered shady at best, to convict criminals. Some critics argue that, by making rules like the RICO act, the government is the true organized criminal enterprise, bending the constitution for its own benefit.

Proponents, however, counter that organized crime organizations, including terrorist cells, could not be defeated without the RICO act.

But critics have gotten more ammunition in recent years. The RICO act has been cited in an increasing number of court cases. It has been used against defendants far outside the realm of organized crime, oftentimes with consultation from Blakey. The act was exercised against tobacco companies.

Recently, it has been applied against the Roman Catholic Church. Missouri lawyers claimed that by having knowledge that priests committed sexual acts against children, the Church is a part of a criminal conspiracy and, therefore, the hierarchy is subject to the RICO act.

But with the Al-Arian case, the government has seemed to return RICO to its roots of Mafia-style crime. And that seems to be bad news for Al-Arian. If the government can prove that Al-Arian is indeed the head of PIJ in the United States, then crimes committed by anyone in the criminal “family” beneath him can be used against him. The government, in the last three decades, has gotten very good at using this controversial act. Now Al-Arian will have to find a defense.

Most recently, defendants have successfully beaten RICO cases by arguing the definition of a criminal conspiracy. Those results have somewhat narrowed the act back to its original intention — snuffing out organized crime. Those defenses won’t help Al-Arian, however, because he is accused under RICO’s base definition of heading an organized criminal group.

Therefore, Al-Arian will have to prove that no such criminal conspiracy exists. That will be difficult with the apparent wiretap and monetary paper trail that, according to the indictment, exists against him. Also, Al-Arian has associated with Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, the former USF instructor who now reportedly heads PIJ. His alleged activities are well known, and, if the government can prove a criminal conspiracy, the connection would probably lead to yet another RICO conviction and a long prison sentence.

RICO cases are beatable, but the government has had lots of practice. Now Al-Arian’s attorney, Nicholas Matassini, will have to find a defense against an experienced prosecutor of organized crime.