The Georgia prosecutor who has charged former President Donald Trump and 18 others with scheming to overturn the 2020 presidential election may be drawing on her experience with another complex, high-profile case from a decade ago familiar to educators nationwide: the Atlanta school cheating scandal.
Fani Willis, now the elected Fulton County district attorney, was a co-lead prosecutor in which 35 of the Atlanta district’s administrators and teachers were indicted in 2013, notably under Georgia’s Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, on charges of cheating on state achievement tests chiefly by erasing students’ incorrect answers and changing them to correct ones. Some of those indicted took plea deals, while 11 of 12 who went to trial were convicted in 2015.
Eight years later, a Georgia grand jury on Aug. 14 handed up a 98-page indictment charging Trump and the 18 other defendants under the Georgia RICO statute, alleging that they “unlawfully conspired” through “a pattern of racketeering activity” to “change the outcome of the election in favor of Trump.”
The two cases “do have some similarities,” and Willis “is well positioned to handle the current case” involving Trump and his fellow defendants, said Clint Rucker, an Atlanta lawyer now in private practice who was the co-lead prosecutor with Willis in the Atlanta schools case.
“First, the number of participants,” Rucker said in an interview. “There was a high number of participants in the Atlanta public schools case. There are a high number of participants here in the Trump case. Second, the complexity of the issues is similar in both cases.”
The Georgia RICO statute is at the center of both prosecutions. The RICO charges have attracted attention in part because the counterpart federal RICO law was enacted as a tool to battle organized crime, particularly the mafia. (Rudolph W. Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor and New York City mayor who as a Trump adviser was named in the Georgia indictment, drew attention for being charged under a state version of the federal RICO law he had once utilized to prosecute members of New York’s mob families.)
“The Atlanta cheating case was the first time our office had even used the state RICO statute,” Rucker said. “It was probably the most complicated case I have ever tried.”
Use of the state RICO law in the Atlanta cheating case, which allowed for longer prison sentences for those convicted, has drawn criticism from those prosecuted and their defenders, part of a larger critical narrative that the case aggressively targeted many Black educators who felt pressured to show achievement gains.
“Educators were demonized,” said Ruth Boyajian, who taught in Atlanta public schools beginning in 2019 and later worked with the Abolitionist Teaching Network, one of several groups that have been supporting ongoing legal appeals for some of the educators convicted in the cheating case.
“This was the first time cheating was criminalized in this way, and the use of the RICO law made it worse,” she said.
Suspicions about dramatic score increases
The cheating scandal began when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2009 raised questions about extraordinary gains on school test scores in a single year under Superintendent Beverly L. Hall, a one-time national superintendent of the year. That led then-Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, to launch a state investigation of potential cheating by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and others, which led to a 2011 report concluding that widespread cheating had occurred on the 2009 state Criterion-Referenced Competency Test.
The GBI report found that teachers and administrators had violated testing security and storage protocols, changed students’ answers after the tests were completed, provided students with correct answers while the tests were being administered, and reviewed correct answers with students before administration of the tests.
In 2013, the Fulton County district attorney’s office indicted 35 educators, including Hall, on charges that included conspiring to violate the Georgia RICO Act, providing false statements to law-enforcement officers, and influencing witnesses, among other charges. The RICO charges were founded in part on bonuses that schools and educators received for meeting specified achievement targets.
Rucker said that then-District Attorney Paul Howard had brought in an outside lawyer, John Floyd, to study the use of the Georgia RICO statute in the school case and that Howard had made the decision to charge the defendants under that broad law.
Floyd “helped structure the indictment,” Rucker said. “If we had not used RICO, we would have had to bring a separate case against each defendant separately.”
Floyd is reported to have advised Willis and her office on the use of the state RICO law in the election case involving Trump and the other defendants.
Many of those indicted in the Atlanta schools case took plea deals. Hall pleaded not guilty. She was battling breast cancer, and her case was separated from that of the other defendants. She died in 2015 without having gone to trial.
In her opening statement at the trial, Willis termed the alleged crimes “a cleverly disguised conspiracy,” and she discussed alleged cheating parties in which educators changed answers on test forms from “11 o’clock in the morning until 11 o’clock at night and ate fish and grits!”
After eight months of testimony that gripped Atlanta, the jury convicted 11 of the 12 defendants. Three defendants received sentences of 20 years in prison, though to serve only seven, and that was later reduced to three years. Others received sentences including five years in prison, one-year imprisonment, weekend jail time, or probation. Last year, a school principal originally sentenced to one year in prison had her sentence reduced to probation.
Some defendants still have active appeals, but no appellate court has reversed any of the convictions, Rucker said.
Appealing to higher courts and to public opinion
At least two defendants, school reform team Executive Director Tamara Cotman and teacher Angela Williamson, challenged their convictions under the Georgia RICO law, but a state appellate court ruled against them.
“Here, … the evidence showed that APS administrators and teachers, including Dr. Hall, Cotman, and Williamson, received bonuses and increases in their salaries if targets and [Adequate Yearly Progress] were met and that those goals were often met as a direct result of cheating on the CRCT,” the Georgia Court of Appeals said in a 2017 ruling. (Cotman and Williamson appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but that court declined to review their case without comment in 2018.)
Teacher Shani Robinson, who was sentenced to one year in prison after her conviction, wrote a 2019 book about the case in which she proclaimed her innocence and criticized prosecutors and the school system.
“I never cheated,” Robinson said in None of the Above: The Untold Story of the Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal, Corporate Greed, and the Criminalization of Educators, written with journalist Anna Simonton.
Her 1st graders’ test scores did not even count toward her school’s AYP figures, she said, and the state investigation was a “witch hunt” in which colleagues were pressured under questioning to come up with “false accusations.”
Willis was the “ringleader” of a “lengthy theatrical production pocked with such absurdities as the claim about fish and grits, which the media ate up,” Robinson wrote.
Boyajian, formerly with the Abolitionist Teaching Network and now a master’s degree student in education policy at Georgia State University, said “the way the cheating scandal was portrayed was to take the spotlight away from underfunded schools and to demonize educators.”
Rucker said “the big picture that gets lost” about the cheating case is that more than 100 Atlanta educators engaged in questionable or criminal conduct. Most “acknowledge the cheating and admitted their participation. The others were given eight to 10 opportunities to avoid the consequence of criminal prosecution.”
In Trump’s election case, Rucker believes Willis will have no problem putting all 19 defendants together for one trial, and he notes that the total may decline if some defendants take plea deals.
“I’m not surprised to see her doing what she is doing right now,” Rucker said, referring to the broad indictment in the election case. “She’s really smart. And she’s very persuasive with juries.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 20, 2023 edition of Education Week as What Trump’s Prosecution in Georgia Has in Common With the Atlanta Schools Cheating Case