Sunday, February 29, 2004

Were it not for his major league ability at practicing partisanship and vindictiveness, Tom DeLay still would be spraying bugs in Sugar Land, rather than living off the taxpayers and lobby largess in Washington.

DeLay's partisan greed put him on spot

By CLAY ROBISON, Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle
Feb. 29, 2004

Were it not for his major league ability at practicing partisanship and vindictiveness, Tom DeLay still would be spraying bugs in Sugar Land, rather than living off the taxpayers and lobby largess in Washington.

So, it was almost comical for the U.S. House majority leader to sputter, as he did last week in a meeting with Washington reporters, that the prosecutor back in Austin who is investigating some questionable spending on Republican legislative races was being "vindictive" and "partisan."

Yes, Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle -- who began prosecuting political corruption while DeLay was still exterminating household pests instead of congressional foes -- is a Democrat. But over the years, he has investigated and prosecuted more Democrats than Republicans.

While he may not be totally above political considerations -- anyone who has to periodically face the voters can't be oblivious to politics -- Earle over the years has operated pretty independently.

People with memories limited either by age or their own partisanship may judge Earle's track record only by his failed prosecution of Republican U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in 1993. Hutchison was accused of misusing state employees for political and personal chores while she was Texas state treasurer. After igniting a firestorm of protests from Republican partisans, Earle eventually dropped the case, and the trial judge ordered an innocent verdict.

Several years earlier, though, the district attorney had angered many liberal Democrats with his prosecution of then-Attorney General Jim Mattox on a commercial bribery charge. Mattox was acquitted by a jury in 1985.

In all, Earle says, he has prosecuted 11 Democratic elected officials and four Republicans since 1977, exercising his jurisdiction over crimes that occur in Travis County, the seat of state government. Earle's Public Integrity Unit receives state funding, which disgruntled legislators of both parties have periodically threatened to cut.

Some of Earle's prosecutions have scored. The best known was probably his investigation of then-House Speaker Gib Lewis, a Democrat, in 1990 and 1991. Lewis, who was indicted on two misdemeanor ethics charges stemming from his relationship with an influential law firm, eventually pleaded "no contest" and paid a $2,000 fine.

But of more importance to Earle, Lewis also announced in 1992 that he wouldn't seek re-election to another term in the House, thus ending the long tenure of a legislative leader whom Earle obviously had considered ethically challenged.

Lewis, incidentally, was no less furious at Earle then than DeLay is now. Lewis said his fellow Democrat was guilty of "unethical and reprehensible behavior."

DeLay said Earle is trying to "criminalize politics" with his prolonged investigation of how Texans for a Republican Majority, a political action committee formed by DeLay, and the Texas Association of Business spent corporate donations during the 2002 legislative campaigns in Texas.

DeLay is wrong. Earle is trying to determine, instead, if DeLay's group and the business assocation "criminalized politics" by illegally spending corporate money directly on Republican candidates in the GOP's takeover of the Texas House and the speaker's office.

Republicans see retribution for DeLay's victory in last year's bitter legislative fight over congressional redistricting, which was made possible by the new GOP majority in the statehouse. If the investigation produces indictments, judges and juries ultimately will have to decide if the fund raising and spending crossed the line into illegal activity.

But with questions being raised about how more than $2 million in corporate donations was spent, large sums of money being passed back and forth between Texas and Washington and the successful candidate for speaker of the Texas House passing out checks to legislative candidates, an investigation seems warranted.

None of the above may have "criminalized" politics, but they all added to the corruption of politics, a bipartisan, power-grabbing, money-grubbing game at which DeLay has excelled.

DeLay, to be sure, is far from alone. Bill Clinton's rental of the Lincoln Bedroom, and Al Gore's money-raising visit to a Buddhist temple, for example, are high on the list of Democratic outrages.

But Clinton, Gore and a lot of other players were outside Earle's jurisdiction. DeLay, on the other hand, let his partisan greed put him right in the middle of it.