Saturday, October 25, 2003

Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle is pounding his fist on the restaurant table, sounding more like a revival preacher than a prosecutor widely considered the most powerful Democrat in Texas.

Earle weighs influence vs. investigation

Travis DA says he's too focused on campaign money inquiry to decide future

Saturday, October 25, 2003

Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle is pounding his fist on the restaurant table, sounding more like a revival preacher than a prosecutor widely considered the most powerful Democrat in Texas.

"God Almighty!" he exclaims. "There's a detail they overlooked. They did not get the Legislature to repeal the law that makes that a crime!"

Earle's influence comes from his power to investigate allegations of misconduct at the Capitol and state offices. Right now, he's focused on an investigation of the corporate cash-raising machines that fueled the Republican Party's consolidation of power: Texas Association of Business and Texans for a Republican Majority.

His frustration comes from just being told that Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond intends to solicit secret corporate donations to pay for ads in next year's elections just as he did last year -- despite Earle's ongoing grand jury investigation. Critics say widespread use of the group's methods would cripple public disclosure of the money influencing elections.

Earle should be riding high. He just thwarted Hammond's 10-month legal battle to stop the grand jury investigation. He's also up for re-election next year with no opponent on the horizon.

"Nobody has thought about the DA," Travis County GOP Chairman Alan Sager said. "They expect Ronnie to run again."

That Earle, 62, remains coy about running for re-election to a job he first won in 1976 has to do with his flirtation with running for higher office. He sometimes thinks a bigger pulpit would give him a broader audience and more freedom to speak out.

"I think people are beginning to understand we are in danger of turning into a banana republic with a few wealthy people and many who are hungry and forlorn," he said. "I'm discovering that with the takeover of state government by wealthy corporate interests, there's a limit to my ability to see that justice is done."

If Earle runs for re-election, he would be committed to a four-year term and could not resign to run for statewide office in 2006 without turning over the district attorney's job to the Republicans through gubernatorial appointment.
Republicans may wish, but don't expect, that Earle would walk away from the biggest investigation of his career.

"Ronnie Earle is much more dangerous as district attorney than as a statewide candidate," said one Republican adviser, who requested anonymity to avoid upsetting the prosecutor. "He can make a lot of people's lives miserable" with the threat of indictments.

Biggest case yet

State law prohibits corporations or labor unions from making campaign expenditures. The idea is that corporate officers or labor officials shouldn't be funneling other people's money -- from stockholders or union members -- into campaigns. One exception allows corporate and union donations to pay for overhead to run a political action committee.

In the case of Texans for Republican Majority, the political action committee reported raising almost $600,000 in corporate donations and disclosed who gave the money. The committee also raised campaign donations from individuals.

The organization, modeled after U.S. Majority Leader Tom DeLay's Americans for a Republican Majority, recruited candidates for the Legislature, educated them on the issues and gave them money. DeLay was one of the committee's six board members.

John Colyandro, former executive director of the group, said the committee either spent the corporate money on party-building activities or paid for consultants, salaries, travel and other overhead expenses.

At issue is whether some of those expenses were illegal. Colyandro says they were not, and Austin lawyer Terry Scarborough, representing the GOP majority group in related civil lawsuits, said he has not been notified about any grand jury investigation of the group.

In the case of the Texas Association of Business, the organization spent $1.9 million on advertising in about two dozen races for the Legislature. Hammond has refused to identify the corporate donors, arguing the ads were not electioneering but protected free speech because the ads did not use words such as "support" or "oppose."

Hammond, who has said the ads helped elect a Republican majority to the Legislature, said his organization will run a similar campaign next year.

"Our members and our funders have been unanimous in what we did and I look forward to talking to them again," he said. "We intend to do it the same way." Republicans dismiss Earle's investigation as a political vendetta but acknowledge its potential to cause problems for GOP officials and their business supporters.

"I think Ronnie Earle's investigation will boil down to the old adage, `You can beat the rap, but you can't beat the ride,' " said Andy Taylor, the lawyer for the state's largest business organization. While predicting Earle won't ever successfully prosecute anyone from the investigation, Taylor concludes, "It's the ride we are on now, and there's little we can do about it."

For 10 months, Taylor did plenty. He argued that the corporate-financed ads were free speech that's beyond the state's prohibition against corporate or union campaign expenditures. But no court -- from the Travis County Courthouse to the U.S. Supreme Court -- agreed to stop Earle's grand jury investigation.

Office politics

Despite winning the right to move forward with the investigation, Earle said last week that he remains unsure about his political future: "I don't know what I'm going to do."

He said he hasn't had time to make a final decision but admits it would be hard to walk away from an investigation that many see either as the capstone of his career or a lodestone for political trouble.

The Legislature aborted an attempt this year to eliminate state money for Earle's Public Integrity Unit, the group of prosecutors and investigators who probe misconduct by state officials.

Rep. Jack Stick, R-Austin, who once worked for Earle, participated in that attempt as a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

Earle can expect more scrutiny in the 2005 legislative session.

"The DA's office receives $6 million a biennium from the state," Stick said. "It is responsible for spending that money prudently and efficiently. They'll be responsible to the same scrutiny as any other state agency."

The business association endorsed Stick in last year's election and targeted some of its advertising toward that race, including a crowded Republican primary.

There also is perennial discussion about moving the unit's duties to the state attorney general.

Stick echoes a view common to other GOP lawmakers.

"I think the Travis County district attorney's office is potentially the third or fourth most powerful job in the state," he said. "I think Ronnie is viewed as one of the remaining standard bearers for the Democratic Party. You can see that he doesn't view the office just as prosecution. He views it as an agent for social change."

Indeed, Earle not only talks about the street criminals he puts in prison but the social conditions that lead to crime. In the same way, Earle takes a big-picture approach to the campaign finance probe.

"If democracy depends on the size of your wallet," Earle said, "then we've doomed the futures of our children and grandchildren."

Earle, who has prosecuted Democratic as well as Republican officials, argues that his investigation of special interest money cuts across party lines.

Rep. Terry Keel, R-Austin, is another former prosecutor who worked for Earle. He defends his former boss.

"My fellow Republicans have the false perception that he is politically driven to target Republicans," Keel said. "I know that to be untrue because I worked closely with him for nine years. I think he has the highest level of integrity."

Yet Keel predicts the campaign finance investigation will lead to other investigations in the political arena.

"The kind of things the DA is pointing to as criminal by TAB are no different than what liberal groups have been doing for years," he said. "I think the DA will have opened a can of worms."