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.

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