DA no stranger to political controversyEarle shrugs off labels he's earned going after elected officials
By GEORGE KUEMPEL / The Dallas Morning News
March 2, 2004
AUSTIN – Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle has been here before, accused of vindictiveness, partisanship and conducting political witch hunts.
But the Democrat has a ready answer for those critical of his investigation into the possible illegal use of corporate donations that allowed Republicans to wrest control of the Texas House from Democrats two years ago. He says 11 of the 15 elected officials he's prosecuted since taking over as district attorney in 1977 have been members of his own party.
Republicans, meanwhile, are retaliating by threatening to strip Mr. Earle's Public Integrity Unit of its state funding. He has fended off similar efforts in the past.
State Republican Chairwoman Tina Benkiser said Monday that she would ask the state Republican Executive Committee to pass a resolution urging the Legislature to transfer funding and authority for the unit to the attorney general.
Mr. Earle's office has issued more than four dozen subpoenas as part of its investigation into the possible money laundering of corporate donations by a political action committee founded by U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay of Sugar Land.
In question is whether the money was used to help fund the campaigns of more than a dozen Republicans, whose elections in 2002 gave the GOP control of the House after more than 130 years.
Mr. DeLay, the House majority leader, has criticized Mr. Earle for his "long history of being vindictive and partisan."
"This is criminalizing or an attempt to criminalize politics," he said.
Mr. Earle shrugged off the charges, saying being accused of being partisan and vindictive by Mr. DeLay is like "being called ugly by a frog."
Mr. Earle, 61, has been a lightning rod since the Legislature gave his office authority to investigate elected officials.
A native of Birdville, an unincorporated community in Tarrant County, Mr. Earle received bachelor's and law degrees from the University of Texas and served briefly in the Texas House before his election as district attorney.
Despite his past successes, Mr. Earle's critics are quick to note that some of the "big fish" he's gone after have gotten off free or agreed to plead to lesser crimes.
In 1994, he refused to present any evidence at the opening of U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's criminal trial in Fort Worth. She was charged with official misconduct and records tampering while serving as state treasurer.
The judge promptly acquitted Ms. Hutchison of all charges. Mr. Earle said later he declined go forward because he didn't think he would be allowed to offer evidence critical to his case. Nine years earlier, then-Attorney General Jim Mattox, a Democrat, was acquitted of a felony bribery charge.
In 1992, Speaker Gib Lewis of Fort Worth pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor ethics charge and was fined $2,000 as part of a plea bargain. Mr. Earle obtained felony convictions of two Democrats, then-state Supreme Court Justice Don Yarbrough in 1978 and former state Rep. Lane Denton of Waco in 1995. Mr. Denton's wife, former state Rep. Betty Denton, pleaded guilty to lesser charges.
Other Republicans targeted by Mr. Earle over the years include former state Reps. Chip Staniswallis of Amarillo and Mike Martin of Longview. They pleaded guilty to felony theft and perjury charges, respectfully.
Mr. Earle has escaped several GOP challenges at the polls over the years and is unopposed in his bid for a new four-year term.