Fact Check

Etymology of RICO

Were RICO laws named for a film gangster?

Published Apr 10, 2002

Claim:   Federal statutes intended to help fight organized crime were designated 'Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations' laws because the acronym spelled out the name of a film gangster.

Status:   Undetermined.

Example:   [Ciolli, 1988]

The drafters [of the RICO statute] deliberately named the law the rather awkward Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act so they could obtain the acronym RICO — the name of the gangster portrayed by Edward G. Robinson in the film "Little Caesar." As the once-powerful mobster lay dying he uttered the famous last line, "Mother of God, is this the end of Rico?"

Origins:   In 1970 the U.S. government enacted federal statutes referred to as the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations laws to combat the influence of organized crime in legitimate businesses.

Edward G. Robinson as Little Caesar

RICO, as these laws are more commonly known, made it "unlawful to conduct or conspire to conduct an enterprise whose activities affect interstate commerce by committing or agreeing to commit a pattern of racketeering activity." In other words, the government found that throwing mob bosses in prison did little to stop organized crime (because the bosses were easily replaced), so they passed laws enabling them to go after the mob's money instead (particularly in cases where organized crime was making or laundering money by infiltrating legitimate businesses and labor unions).

When these laws dealing with "enterprise criminality" were drafted back in the late 1960s, several names were proposed for them, including the "Criminal Activities Profits Act" (CAPA) and the "Corrupt Organizations Act" (COA), but the eventual winner was

"Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations" (RICO). (The name is often misprinted as the "Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act" — it's 'Racketeer' rather than 'Racketeering'; there should be an 'and' between 'Influenced' and 'Corrupt'; and there's technically no 'Act' at the end of the name, although even the government sometimes renders it that way.)

After RICO entered common parlance, the rumor began to spread that "Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations" was chosen not because it was the most appropriately descriptive name for the laws, but because it created a clever acronym that matched the name of Edward G. Robinson's character in the classic 1930 gangster film Little Caesar. (As noted in the example quoted above, the dying utterance of Robinson's character is a well-known cinematic catch phrase: "Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?")

G. Robert Blakey, the Notre Dame Law School professor who drafted RICO for Congress, maintains the name was selected for functional reasons, however, because it applies to both legitimate businesses which have been infiltrated by organized crime (hence "racketeer influenced") and mob-controlled organizations (which are "corrupt"). He's also said that he has "no regrets" about the cumbersome title, he thinks "it's a neat name," he's a movie buff, and he "won't confirm or deny" the rumor about his choice's having been influenced by the name of a film gangster. We suspect the similarity in names was merely an unintended coincidence, but since Mr. Blakely doesn't want to spoil the fun by officially denying it, we'll play along and call this one "undetermined."

Last updated:   21 December 2004

  Sources Sources:

    Ciolli, Rita.   "Verdict Rekindles Debate Over Racketeering Law."

    [New York] Newsday.   12 December 1988   (p. 3).

    Power, William.   "This Certainly Takes All the Fun Out of Watching 'Little Caesar'."

    The Wall Street Journal.   22 August 1988.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

Article Tags