Travis DA needs ruling by attorney generalSeeks to avoid disclosing probe details
By R.G. RATCLIFFE, Houston Chronicle
April 3, 2004
AUSTIN -- Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle on Friday sought refuge from publicly disclosing details of his grand jury investigation of Republican campaign activities by filing an appeal with Attorney General Greg Abbott, one of whose 2002 consultants is among those under investigation.
Earle on Friday released a five-inch stack of documents, but he also is seeking to keep others private, claiming their release would compromise his grand jury investigation. The state public information law requires any agency that wants to keep records secret to seek an opinion from the state attorney general.
In this case, that means Abbott.
For more than a year, Earle has been investigating whether the Texas Association of Business and U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's Texans for a Republican Majority illegally used corporate funds to influence the outcome of 2002 state House races.
TAB lawyer Andy Taylor and Texas Republican Chairman Tina Benkiser in recent weeks have hit Earle's office with extensive public records requests in an effort to show the Democratic district attorney's investigation is politically motivated.
Part of Earle's investigation focuses on one of Abbott's 2002 campaign consultants, John Colyandro, who also was the executive director of Texans for a Republican Majority. Colyandro's activities with TRM have been the subject of numerous grand jury subpoenas.
In a civil lawsuit deposition, Colyandro also has admitted talking to executives of the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, which ran about $1.5 million in commercials attacking Abbott's Democratic opponent, Kirk Watson. The LEAA ads do not appear to be part of Earle's investigation.
In another potential conflict in handling Earle's appeal, Abbott last year hired TAB lawyer Taylor to represent the state in defending a congressional redistricting plan passed by the Republican-dominated Legislature. Taylor also at one time represented TRM in a lawsuit against it for the same activity involved in the grand jury investigation.
When reporters asked Earle if he was concerned that Abbott would share confidential documents with Taylor or Colyandro, he said he has to trust that Abbott will handle his request for confidentiality appropriately.
"Investigations such as this that go to the heart of the integrity upon which our institutions of government are based, require everybody to take a test," Earle said.
Abbott spokesman Paco Felici said, "Open records requests and ruling requests submitted to the office of attorney general are handled based solely upon the law -- the Texas Public Information Act." Taylor said he had not talked to Abbott about his open records request to Earle, but he declined to say whether he has ever discussed the investigation with Abbott. Taylor said he will file a formal brief asking Abbott to order that the records be made public.
Taylor said he believes that if all the records are released, they will prove Earle's partisan motives. "Ronnie Earle's persecution of the Texas Association of Business makes the Salem witch trials look fair by comparison," Taylor said.
Taylor complained that he had not seen the records and that Earle had released them to the news media first. Earle said his investigation might have been over by now if Taylor had not spent most of last year vainly fighting TAB records subpoenas in state and federal court.
Earle said the requests from Taylor and Benkiser have cost his office about $12,000 to fill.