Leave RICO's Civil Side Intact

Let's be cautious about narrowing the scope of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), as the editorial ``High Court and RICO,'' Jan. 28, suggests Congress consider doing.

Although RICO has become a favorite target of American business groups, the statute performs a useful purpose beyond the fight against the archetypal mob-dominated business. ``Organized crime'' comes in a variety of forms. Although the majority of businesses are law-abiding, a significant minority of otherwise ``legitimate'' commercial enterprises all too often stoop to illegal means.

The competition for scarce resources makes it unlikely that many of these cases will be the focus of the criminal justice system. In fact, RICO's civil provisions can be seen as a concession to this reality. Business crime is most efficiently tackled by the victims' acting as private attorneys general. Although business groups and attorneys bemoan the statute's treble damages, these were provided not as punitive sanctions but, as with the antitrust laws, in recognition of the costs of ferreting out hidden fraud and mounting complex cases.

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To bar a civil RICO action until the ``enterprise'' has been criminally convicted, as the Monitor suggests, would deprive victims of business crime of a valuable tool and defeat the purpose of the statute's civil remedy.

This is not to suggest that RICO is never used inappropriately. But any legal action can be abused. To the extent that RICO claims have been misused, existing legal provisions can be used to address the problem. Before the RICO statute is drastically amended, the repeated claim that its costs outweigh its benefits should be closely examined, perhaps by the General Accounting Office. The findings might be surprising. Mark Beckett, Short Hills, N.J.

Older democracies

The editorial ``Clinton in Moscow,'' Jan. 18, reports President Clinton to have said that America is the world's oldest democracy and Russia is the youngest. This makes a neat word package but it strays from the truth. Two thousand years ago the Greek civilization was called a democracy. At least 100 years before the US became a nation, the parliament in England took all power from the king and from the hereditary House of Lords and gave it to the elected House of Commons. To me this is a democracy. The editorial later repeats the claim that America is the oldest democracy. In an ``international'' newspaper, I expect to see statements that are not so biased toward an American view. Glenn W. McCullough, Calgary, Alberta

Environmental equity

The article ``N.Y. State Accused of Environmental Racism for Incinerator site,'' Feb. 8, regarding the closing of an Albany, N.Y., power plant concerns a serious issue. Polluting industrial facilities have been forced in many instances on poor and minority communities, particularly in the past. The article, however, makes two serious misstatements.

First, it was not the trash-fired boilers at the Albany plant that blackened the snow in January, but rather the oil-fired boilers. The trash-fired boilers consistently met state environmental requirements. While pollution controls on the trash-fired boilers were not as advanced as in plants we build today, they were cleaner than the oil-fired boilers that provide power to many cities.

Second, the Albany facility was not originally sited as a waste-to-energy plant. It was built in the mid-1960s and burned oil until about 1981. In 1981, to reduce pollution and conserve oil, the trash-fired boilers were added and the oil-fired boilers were converted to natural gas. The recent problem arose when these boilers switched back to oil.

The waste-to-energy industry is young and has been at the forefront of modern pollution control and community relations. We have looked at our own plant locations and have not found evidence of inequitable siting. In most cases, our plants have been built at the invitation of the local community. For example, the proposed Green Island waste-to-energy project near Albany was approved 3 to 1 in a recent referendum. Our industry is committed to environmental equity and to environmentally sound operation. Kent Burton, Washington President, Integrated Waste Services Assoc.

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