Al Capone, the infamous leader of the Chicago Mafia, orchestrated gambling, protection, prostitution and bootlegging rackets.
CNN  — 

The Chicago Mafia. The Gambino family. The Lucchese family.

These notorious groups dominated organized crime in Chicago and New York for decades – until prosecutors brought them down with one sweeping charge: racketeering.

Now the federal government is using racketeering to go after a dozen college athletics figures and test administrators in the largest college admissions scandal ever prosecuted.

Cheating scandals and mob activity may appear very different. But both fall under the broad umbrella of racketeering.

So what exactly is racketeering? For an answer CNN turned to attorney G. Robert Blakey, who has helped draft racketeering laws across the nation.

It’s not a specific crime

Simply put, racketeering means engaging in an illegal scheme. It’s used in the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as RICO, to describe 35 offenses, including kidnapping, murder, bribery, arson and extortion.

“(Racketeering’s) not a specific crime – it’s a way of thinking about and prosecuting a variety of crimes,” says Blakey, a federal criminal law professor at Notre Dame University.

Blakey added that racketeering is not a single criminal act. Prosecutors must prove a pattern involving at least two instances of racketeering activity to convict someone under the law.

It’s purposefully broad

Congress passed the RICO Act in 1970 to combat organized crime. Since then, the law has been used to target some of the highest-profile Mafia members, including Antonio Corallo, head of the infamous Lucchese crime family.

But racketeering is “not only associated with organized crime,” Blakey says.

The federal law is pretty broad, and has even been used to prosecute insider trading cases and anti-abortion groups who block access to clinics.

It has to affect interstate commerce

According to the US Justice Department, to convict someone of racketeering, prosecutors must prove five different criteria:

  • A criminal enterprise existed
  • The enterprise affected interstate commerce
  • The defendant was associated with or employed by the enterprise
  • The defendant engaged in a pattern of racketeering activity
  • The defendant participated in at least two acts of racketeering activity

The minimum sentence for racketeering is 2.5 years. Convicted racketeers can also face a fine of up to $25,000.