Inquiry by Travis DA irks state's RepublicansRepublicans attack the DA
By Jay Root, Star-Telegram Austin Bureau
March 1, 2004
AUSTIN - The most powerful Democrat in Texas holds no statewide office. He doesn't chair some powerful law-writing committee, or even serve in the Texas Legislature.
He's longtime Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle -- Tarrant County native, 1960 graduate of Birdville High School and presiding officer of the state's biggest public corruption investigation in years, maybe decades.
Texas Republicans from U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay on down call Earle vindictive and partisan. But few dispute that he's the only Democrat left who can make them sweat.
"Who else is there?" asked state Republican Party spokesman Ted Royer. "There is no one else out there that can viciously attack Republicans as effectively as Ronnie Earle."
In the last two weeks, Earle's office has made public more than 50 subpoenas seeking information about the fund-raising and spending activities of DeLay and his aides; House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland; Gov. Rick Perry's chief of staff; and several national Republican officials, among others.
The investigation is not likely to end soon, even though the current grand jury, already on holdover, expires at the end of the month.
"I cannot imagine we will be through with this by the end of [March] and we'll just pass off the information to a new grand jury," Earle said.
Prosecutors are investigating whether corporate money illegally fueled the 2002 GOP takeover of the Texas House of Representatives, the last card Republicans needed for a royal political flush. It has since produced a spate of conservative legislation, including a new congressional redistricting map that is sure to cost several top Democrats their jobs.
The targets of the subpoenas deny wrongdoing, and many say that Earle is using a grand jury to undo what he could not stop at the ballot box.
"It's politics, pure and simple," said state Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, after getting subpoenaed for records related to Craddick's 2002 speaker's race.
This is familiar territory for Earle, first elected district attorney in 1976. In 1992, then-state Treasurer Warren G. Harding, a Democrat, accused Earle of conducting a "personal witch hunt."
Harding eventually pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of misusing his government office and left Texas politics.
Before that, the legendary Bob Bullock, a Democratic state comptroller and lieutenant governor who escaped indictment but not Earle's scrutiny, once compared the prosecutor to "a little boy playing with matches" and tried to cut his funding.
Looking back, Earle says he can't remember a single politician he's prosecuted, from either party, who didn't question his motives -- whether they were sent to jail or were acquitted. Of the approximately 15 elected officials prosecuted by his office, Earle said that 11 were Democrats and four were Republicans.
Although he is reluctant to compare past and current prosecutions, Earle suggests in the same breath that the latest allegations of fund-raising misdeeds are without precedent.
"I am not aware of any time in the past when the law was so openly flouted, and by openly and boastfully raising huge amounts of corporate money in order to control elections," Earle said. "I don't think that's happened before, or at least not on my watch."
Born in 1942 in Fort Worth, Earle grew up on the same small cattle ranch his father and grandfather did in an unincorporated town then known as Birdville. He could hardly have picked a more momentous time to grow up near present-day Haltom City, exploding with a postwar population of thousands -- including his father -- drawn by good-paying jobs in the defense industry.
He describes an idyllic childhood that revolved around family, school and the historic Birdville Baptist Church.
"I grew up in the bosom of a large extended family," Earle said. "It was a network of mamas and daddies and aunts and uncles and teachers and preachers and neighbors and cousins and friends. That's what taught me how to act, not the law."
In 1960, with his nose and several fingers reshaped on the football field, Earle left for the University of Texas at Austin. He never looked back.
As a young lawyer, Earle worked in the office of Gov. John Connally before becoming an Austin city judge. When a House seat unexpectedly opened up in 1973, he jumped in and won. Earle served for only 3 1/2 years, just long enough to support changes to the state's marijuana laws.
It was in the House that he first crossed paths with a young Midland Republican named Tommy Craddick. Thirty years later, Earle is investigating Speaker Craddick, one of several former House colleagues he has put under the prosecutor's microscope.
Others have included U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican; former Attorney General Jim Mattox, a Democrat; and former House Speaker Gib Lewis, D-Fort Worth. Asked last week what he thinks of Earle now, Lewis said it was not printable.
"I have some very, very bitter feelings toward him. Nobody likes to be charged unjustly," Lewis said.
Lewis was indicted on misdemeanor charges for failing to report a gift and filing incomplete financial disclosure records. In a plea bargain, he agreed to minor ethics violations and paid a $2,000 fine.
Lewis accused Earle of wasting taxpayers' money on prosecutions that turned up little or nothing. Those criticisms have been echoed by others, including Hutchison, who was acquitted of felony corruption charges after Earle withdrew his indictment. Mattox was acquitted after being charged with felony bribery.
Earle has also faced criticism for not going far enough. In 1983, a grand jury indicted a city attorney for felony theft despite Earle's objections. The panel then accused Earle of ignoring potential government abuses for "political expediency."
But Earle has proved his staying power. Time magazine recently lauded his efforts to avoid errors in death penalty cases and his foresight in creating a victims assistance office in 1979.
Calling him one of the "most admired and most controversial" district attorneys in the nation, Time carried this description of Earle: "Thoughtful. Conspiratorial. Half-whacked. Smart. Insightful. Wise. Nuts."
One friend and ally tacks on another label: populist.
Earle's particular brand of populism -- critics call it partisanship -- was born in a time and place that, as he put it, exist only as a state of mind. But it creeps into virtually every pronouncement he makes on the current fund-raising investigation.
He compares the alleged excesses with the abuses inflicted by robber barons a century ago -- an era that sparked the 1905 corporate money restrictions Earle is using now.
"What we have happening now is an eerie replay of that time when large corporations were using their influence to dominate the regulatory functions of government," Earle said.
"If we surrender to the notion that money controls, I think that we will have destroyed democracy."