RICO, a 1970 federal law, netted alleged mobsters

``We had RICO for almost 10 years before we knew what to do with it,'' said FBI director William Webster. RICO is the acronym for the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970. Its provisions are the basis for indictments brought against nine New York mob figures announced this week.

The indictments were based on information from wiretaps, electronic surveillance, informants, undercover agents, and former mob members.

Several years of investigative work by more than 100 federal agents and city police detectives produced the evidence on which the indictments are based. The task force was divided into five groups, one to each alleged crime ``family.''

Some 80 electronic listening devices were planted and 90 telephone wiretaps were used. Thousands of hours of tapes were recorded. Just organizing and transcribing such material is a mammoth task.

Prosecutors had to decide what evidence would be admissible and persuasive at trials. Recent US Supreme Court decisions easing rules on admission of evidence may have played a part.

RICO was a key for the prosecutors in deciding what charges to make. The federal statute, in effect, allows an end run around the limits of traditional conspiracy law. It made possible charges of ``criminal enterprise'' -- that is, a pattern of racketeering. To prove the charges, prosecutors must produce evidence that the defendants conspired to commit at least two of 32 state or federal crimes.

Objections to RICO and its use focus on two questions: Are convictions too easy when the prosecutor cries ``Mafia''? And is RICO's net so wide that defendants are punished for association more than for the commission of specific crimes?

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