The big view of DA EarleProsecutor says he sees no party lines, just the fate of democracy
By WAYNE SLATER / Dallas Morning News
Friday, December 3, 2004
AUSTIN--In the nearly three decades Ronnie Earle has been district attorney in Travis County, his portfolio has been clear: prosecute criminals and politicians.
"The two aren't mutually exclusive," he said with a brief, wry smile.
His latest high-profile case has House Majority Leader Tom Delay and other Republicans denouncing him as a Democratic partisan from the liberal haunts of Austin. But Mr. Earle says he's politically agnostic.
In an interview at his office last week, the 62-year-old district attorney said his current investigation of corporate money in political campaigns might be the most important prosecution of his career.
"Democracy is at stake here," Mr. Earle said.
"If we allow corporations to control elections," he said, "we will destroy democracy. It will be the death knell of democracy."
His investigation has stirred powerful political forces in Austin and Washington. A Travis County grand jury has indicted three associates of Mr. DeLay, R-Sugar Land, and is investigating whether illegal corporate money was laundered by political-action committees with ties to top Republicans, including Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick.
Political observers describe Mr. Earle as tough and independent, a solitary figure whose introduction to hardball started at Birdville High School, where he played linebacker so ferociously he broke two fingers that remain bent and paralyzed.
Democrats, including some who have found themselves in Mr. Earle's cross hairs, say he's more idealist than ideologue, less vengeful partisan than Hill Country Quixote.
He once even filed misdemeanor charges against himself and paid a $200 fine after learning his campaign had failed to file required contribution reports.
"He's not pressurable," said Glenn Smith, a political consultant hired by Democrat state House Speaker Gib Lewis when Mr. Earle successfully prosecuted him for violating ethics laws in the early 1990s.
"He doesn't care who's for what he's doing and who's against what he's doing. He knows what's right and goes after it," said Mr. Smith, a Democrat. "They make a big mistake underestimating him."
But Republicans see Mr. Earle's latest prosecution is politics pure and simple. Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio, called him "a partisan crackpot," and Mr. DeLay denounced him as "a runaway district attorney."
Last month, Republicans in Congress rushed to protect Mr. DeLay by repealing a rule requiring that leaders relinquish leadership positions if indicted.
Mr. Earle fired back with an opinion column in The New York Times saying the House GOP had betrayed "moral values and ethical behavior" by changing the rules to protect their leaders.
Sitting in his office, Mr. Earle acknowledged that he has become the bane of red-meat Republican circles from Texas to Washington.
"What else are they going to say?" he said.
Over his 27-year career, Mr. Earle has prosecuted 12 Democratic officeholders and four Republicans.
He brought down a state treasurer, a House speaker, a state Supreme Court justice and several legislators – all Democrats.
But he has also lost some big cases. His highest-profile Republican loss came in 1994, when U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison was exonerated of ethics charges, a case the GOP calls a frivolous prosecution that proves what it sees as partisan motives.
In the current case, a succession of grand juries over the last two years have examined more than $2 million in corporate money spent in 2002 to elect GOP legislative candidates who, in turn, made Mr. Craddick the first Republican House speaker since Reconstruction and redrew congressional boundaries to give Mr. DeLay an additional six Republicans in Congress.
In addition to indicting three DeLay lieutenants, the ongoing grand jury has charged eight out-of-state corporations and has issued scores of subpoenas for legislators, political operatives, officials of state's largest business group and the Republican governor's former chief of staff.
The theme of corporate money in politics animates Mr. Earle. In court once, he cited Mussolini comparing fascism to "corporatism," the merger of the state and corporate power.
"The reason corporations and labor unions are not allowed to give money to campaigns is because they are not individual people. They are things," he said. "And to allow things to control elections makes a mockery of government by the people."
From the window of his corner office, Mr. Earle can see the green and undulant rise of the Texas Hill Country.
There is a ceramic boot in one window, a spur in the other and a framed editorial cartoon in which his enemies, who have accused him of conducting a witch hunt in the current case, are themselves dressed in black cloaks and pointed hats.
Mr. Earle said he had planned to retire and spend more time with his wife, Twila, on the small ranch where they moved in the early 1980s and raised organic vegetables to sell at the Farmers Market. When the current case crossed his desk, he put off his retirement plans.
Raised on a ranch northeast of Fort Worth, he graduated from the University of Texas Law School, worked for Gov. John Connally, served as a Democrat in the Texas Legislature and, in 1976, was elected district attorney. He has won re-election since then, sometimes without drawing a Republican opponent.
The Austin where he politically came of age has long been a liberal, if eclectic, place. The Armadillo World Headquarters, a 1970s concert hall that synthesized redneck and hippie cultures, flourished here. The city council still opens its meetings with live music.
This year, while Texas voted overwhelmingly to re-elect favorite son George W. Bush as president, Travis County went 56 percent for Democrat John Kerry. A popular bumper sticker says, "Keep Austin Weird."
As a prosecutor, Mr. Earle has pursued a balance between the conservative requirements of law enforcement (he supports the death penalty) and the community's more moderate instincts. (He and Twila taught a course at the University of Texas entitled, "Reweaving the Fabric of Community.")
In a 1996 book, two scholars cite Mr. Earle's support of community involvement as part of what they call the "broken window" theory of combating crime.
"Basically, it says a broken window left unfixed leads to more and more serious crime," said Mr. Earle.
"We don't have just any broken windows here," he said of the current case. "These are broken portals of democracy. So it's important to public confidence in our sacred institutions that somebody mark that and do something about it."
Some of the high-profile cases prosecuted by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle:
In 1994, Mr. Earle took U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican, to trial in Fort Worth on charges of official misconduct and records tampering while she was state treasurer. At the opening of the trial, he refused to present any evidence, and she was acquitted. Mr. Earle later said he wouldn't go forward because he didn't think he would be allowed to offer critical evidence.
In 1992, Texas House Speaker Gib Lewis, D-Fort Worth, pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor ethics charge and was fined $2,000 as part of a plea bargain.
In 1985, Attorney General Jim Mattox, a Democrat, was acquitted of a felony bribery charge brought by Mr. Earle's office.
In 1978, Mr. Earle obtained a felony perjury conviction of state Supreme Court Justice Don Yarbrough, a Democrat.