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Texas prosecutor leads final big charge

Texas prosecutor Ronnie Earle says his prosecution of Rep. Tom DeLay isn't personal, but clearly the case has acquired a personal flavor, as much of DeLay's public defense has focused squarely on Earle.
Democratic Travis County, Texas, District Attorney Ronnie Earle has seen his political history thrust into the spotlight as he pursues criminal conspiracy charges against Rep. Tom DeLay, one of the nation's most powerful Republicans.Thomas Terry / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Ronnie Earle, the Texas prosecutor vilified by Rep. Tom DeLay as a "rogue district attorney" and an "unabashed partisan zealot," has heard worse.

There was the time, for instance, that a prominent Texas Democrat vowed to murder him.

"He would hold all these press conferences and say terrible things about me," Earle said, referring to Bob Bullock, the future lieutenant governor whom Earle investigated for allegedly misusing government resources in the 1970s.

"I know at least twice people took guns away from him when he said he was going to kill me."

Earle, a Democrat, was laughing as he recounted the story in the Travis County district attorney's office last week. And like many sagas in Earle's career, the Bullock episode comes with a footnote.

Earle couldn't persuade the grand jury to indict Bullock, who was then the state's comptroller and struggling with a drinking problem. But years later, once Bullock had sobered up, the two men were recounting old times at Bullock's kitchen table.

"You know years ago when you investigated me?" Earle recalled Bullock telling him. "I was guilty as hell."

An appetite for confrontation
It's unlikely that Earle will be reminiscing over a kitchen table anytime soon with DeLay, the powerful Texas Republican he indicted last week. DeLay, whom Earle charged with conspiring to funnel illegal corporate campaign contributions into the state's 2002 legislative elections, has been forced to temporarily abdicate his post as House majority leader.

But one can see why Earle loves telling the Bullock story. It vindicates Earle's position, at least in his own retelling (Bullock died in 1999). It also exemplifies his willingness to target swaggering political figures, regardless of party.

A recurring theme among Earle's critics over the years -- and a centerpiece of DeLay's attacks -- has been that Earle courts media attention too aggressively. "During his investigation," DeLay said, "he has gone out of his way to give several media interviews in his office. The only days he actually comes into his office, I'm told." These critiques gained resonance last week when the National Review reported that Earle had allowed a film crew extensive access to his office while he worked on the DeLay case.

Explaining his cooperation with the media, Earle places it in the broader context of his mission. "Justice depends on the law," he said. "The law depends on democracy, democracy depends on free elections and free elections depend on freedom of the press. I see it as all of a piece."

Earle says his prosecution of DeLay isn't personal -- he says he has spoken to DeLay just once in his life. But clearly the case has acquired a personal flavor, as much of DeLay's public defense has focused on Earle, and Earle has held little back, too. ("Being called partisan and vindictive by Tom DeLay is like being called ugly by a frog," Earle said last year.)

And, Earle says, his pursuit of DeLay has nothing to do with politics -- DeLay's or his own. In the past, he often pointed out that of the 15 politicians his office has indicted since he was first elected in 1976, only three have been Republicans. DeLay makes four. (Of course, through much of Earle's career, few Republicans in Texas held positions of power.)

The case against DeLay
The 11-term congressman was indicted on a charge of criminally conspiring with two associates to infuse illegal corporate contributions into the 2002 Texas elections that helped Republicans redraw the state's congressional map — and ultimately bolster the GOP's control of Congress.

It is illegal in Texas to use corporate money in state elections. DeLay helped organize the Texas political committee that collected the corporate contributions, but says he's done nothing wrong. Earle began investigating the contributions after 17 Republicans who received money from the committee were elected, giving the GOP control of the Texas House for the first time in 130 years. The legislature then approved a new congressional map that helped elect five more Republicans to Congress.

A stick in the sand
To some degree, Earle lends himself to easy caricature as an agenda-driven lefty. His Austin jurisdiction is a liberal outpost within Texas's conservative political culture. Travis County voted decisively against favorite son George W. Bush last year, with 56 percent supporting John Kerry, including Earle.

It doesn't help that Earle is an avid practitioner of yoga, which renders him, to say the least, exotic among Texas politicians -- at least in his willingness to admit it. "Yoga is an antidote to the joint stiffness that accompanies age," explained Earle, who is 63. He and his wife, Twila, have three adult children.

Earle is also an honorary member of Alcoholics Anonymous -- even though he's not an alcoholic. Why? He met many alcoholics while serving as a night court judge, he says. "They invited me to their AA meetings. How could I say no?"

Earle has an eccentric streak, clearly, sometimes in the service of projecting a squeaky-clean image. He once filed charges against himself for submitting a campaign finance report a day late. He asked a judge to fine him, His Honor obliged, and Earle was out $212.

A ‘radical moderate’ with staying power
Still, Earle can defy pigeonholing. Buck Wood, an Austin lawyer and friend of Earle's, says the prosecutor is "definitely a moderate," and that he's "not involved in the Democratic Party."

Raised on a cattle ranch in the tiny north Texas town of Birdville, Earle served briefly in the Texas House before being elected district attorney. A self-described "radical moderate," he has faced little serious opposition in his reelection campaigns. This comports with commonly heard descriptions of him -- adjectives such as "maverick," "idealist" and "crusader."

Indeed, Earle is a former Eagle Scout more interested in social policy than in collecting death-penalty convictions. He has taught a course at the University of Texas at Austin on "reweaving the fabric of community." Starting in the mid-1980s, he insisted that some of his prosecutors work in the same building as social workers and police officers in an effort to curb child abuse before it occurred.

And he has never hesitated to use his job as a bully pulpit. In a speech two weeks ago before a state lobbying group, Earle said, "corporate money in politics" has become "the fight of our generation of Americans. . . . It is our job -- our fight -- to rescue democracy from the money that has captured it."

Such pronouncements are typical Earle, says Texas Rep. Terry Keel (R), who served under Earle for nearly nine years before seeking public office himself.

"Ronnie has a very deep philosophical belief about good and evil," Keel said. "He sees corporate involvement in politics as an evil to be attacked at any costs."

An anti-corporate crusader?
During an April 3, 2003, hearing in which Earle was trying to obtain information about contributors to the Texas Association of Business, a group embroiled in the current DeLay investigation, he declared the state "would offer the words of Benito Mussolini, who said that fascism should more properly be called corporatism since it is the merger of state and corporate power."

The judge was amused.

"I didn't realize I would be maybe researching quotes from Voltaire and Mussolini before this was over," said Judge Mike Lynch, who gave Earle most of the association's documents he sought.

To veteran Texas trial lawyers such as Roy Minton, a liberal Democrat who is defending the business association, the Mussolini speech "livened up everybody." But "what assistance does that give to the judge?" Minton asked. "Ronnie does not think as a trial lawyer. He thinks in right and wrong as he sees the right and the wrong. You ask him, 'Is that against the law?' and he'll say, 'It's wrong.' "

Keel questions whether the D.A. had enough legal grounds to indict DeLay.

"He has clean motives. I just don't think the facts back him up," Keel said.

Campaign funding in the crosshairs
Earle speaks of his role in understated terms. He sees himself as simply a fact finder, intent on rooting out the truth and bringing his case before a jury. "I really take seriously the duty to see justice is done," he said.

Even so, Earle's rhetoric can have a messianic feel, suggesting a loftier sense of mission.

"The root of all evil truly is money," Earle says in a monologue in a new film, "The Big Buy," for which Earle allowed the filmmakers extensive access to the DeLay investigation. A copy of the unfinished film was obtained by National Review Online, which posted passages on the Web.

"People talk about how money is the mother's milk of politics," Earle says in the film. "Well, it's the devil's brew. And what we've got to do, we've got to turn off the tap."

Indictments just for show?
Few would deny Earle's fervor, though he has been accused of overreaching at times. One of the low points of his career took place in 1993 when he pursued Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison for allegedly misusing state telephones for political purposes. When the judge questioned whether some of Earle's evidence was admissible, Earle asked that the case be dismissed. The judge refused and instructed jurors to acquit Hutchison.

The case embarrassed Earle, who rarely tries cases himself, and led many to question his motives -- specifically that he had no intention of bringing the case against Hutchison to trial and filed it only to embarrass her.

The episode distills a tension that has run through Earle's career between his abundant sense of outrage and the actual merits of certain cases.

In "The Big Buy," an assistant district attorney in Earle's office, Rosemary Lehmberg, says that Earle has pursued the DeLay case despite objections within the office. "Ronnie was the only person in maybe a group of six or seven lawyers in a room who thought we ought to go ahead and investigate," she says.

A fight to the finish
"One of these guys is not going to come out of this," Keel said, referring to Earle's prosecution of DeLay. He predicts it will be Earle who doesn't.

Not so, says Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Tex.), who served briefly in the state legislature with Earle in the mid-1970s.

"He would not bring this case, at what is probably the end of his career, unless it was a case with great merit," Doggett said.

Earle says he has no choice. He was hoping to retire last year, he says, but felt he could not abandon this case.

"The issue that we're faced with is the role of large concentrations of money in democracy, whether it's individuals or corporations," he said. "The issue is the same."

Juliet Eilperin reported from Austin. Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.