Saturday, April 3, 2004

Travis District Attorney Ronnie Earle on Friday accused the Texas Association of Business of trying to choke off a grand jury investigation by harassing the prosecutor's office with frivolous requests for public records.

Says public records requests aimed at stalling inquiry into corporate money

By Laylan Copelin, April 3, 2004

Travis District Attorney Ronnie Earle on Friday accused the Texas Association of Business of trying to choke off a grand jury investigation by harassing the prosecutor's office with frivolous requests for public records.

Earle is investigating whether the state's largest business organization illegally used corporate donations to affect the 2002 legislative elections. Association lawyer Andy Taylor said he is looking for evidence that material from the grand jury might have been leaked.

At a news conference Friday, Earle released about a three-inch stack of what appeared to be innocuous e-mails and other public documents. He refused to release materials protected by grand jury secrecy, documents that would identify witnesses or the work product of his prosecutors. Earle, a Democrat, sent "representative samples" of those undisclosed materials to Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican, to determine whether he has to release anything else.

Earle sidestepped questions about whether it makes him nervous to have the material reviewed by Abbott, who hired Taylor for outside work as well as used him as his transition chief when Abbott took office last year. Earle denied leaking secrets or coordinating his investigation with civil lawyers who are suing the Texas Association of Business. Abbott's office, in turn, said it would not leak any information it must review to determine whether it's a public document.

The cat-and-mouse game over the conduct of the investigation raises the stakes in an already high-stakes investigation that goes beyond the Texas Association of Business and its $1.9 million in ads financed by unnamed corporations. The grand jury also is investigating how Texans for a Republican Majority, chaired by U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, spent $600,000 in corporate donations, and whether outside groups, such as the GOP political committee, improperly influenced the election of Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland.

Likewise, Taylor has raised the specter of involving the state bar, federal prosecutors or a state district judge if he can substantiate a grand jury leak.

"These request are a cynical affront to public integrity and accountability," Earle said.

He said Taylor is trying to stall the investigation just as he did for almost a year, fighting the submission of evidence to the grand jury by appealing from the Travis County courthouse to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Now that they've run out of courts," Earle said, "they're resorting to frivolous open records requests." Taylor said the request is not frivolous.

"The thrust of what I requested are not documents that were kept secret, but documents that were secret but were leaked," Taylor said. "I want to see evidence of confidential grand jury information that he has leaked to the news media, partisan groups or fee-seeking plaintiffs attorneys."

On Friday afternoon, Taylor had not received the documents released by Earle, so he could not comment on them.

Taylor asked Earle to produce all evidence of contact between prosecutors and losing Democratic candidates, their lawyers who filed suit over the elections, Democratic Party leaders, and reporters and editors. His request followed a similar one by Tina Benkiser, the state Republican Party chairwoman.

At the press conference, Earle said the documents he released showed one contact between his office and Democratic Party officials, a request for an investigation that was forwarded to him because it involved misdemeanor allegations.

The records included a couple of contacts by Democratic candidates who lost to Republicans and are suing the Texas Association of Business. Former Austin Rep. Ann Kitchen sent Earle an e-mail detailing the association's solicitation of support from chambers of commerce, which included an update on the investigation written by Taylor.

Former Democratic legislative candidate Jim Sylvester, a collector of Boy Scouts memorabilia, inquired about Earle's collection.

Earle said the contacts between his office and outside lawyers were routine sharing of public records.

"We cannot and do not share information we have obtained through our investigation," Earle said. "We don't share our strategies or coordinate with them."

Earle said Taylor's request for the records cost taxpayers at least $12,000.

Taylor said that Earle has not provided a price tag for the year-long investigation: "While he is quick to criticize others for the cost of producing public documents controlled by his office, he refuses to explain just how much his partisan investigation against TAB is costing Texas taxpayers."