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September 29, 2005

On Tom DeLay and the prosecutor who indicted him ...

Among the nicer things newly indicted Tom Delay has called prosecutor Ronnie Earle is "partisan political fanatic."

The "partisan" part may not stick. "Fanatic" could.

Mr. Earle himself is among the 12 politicians he's charged with campaign/ethics violations during his 28 years as district attorney in Travis County, Texas. He accused himself of untimely reporting of 1981 and 1982 campaign finances and paid a $200 fine. He's one of nine Democrats he's prosecuted, including an attorney general and a state treasurer. Just three of his targets were Republicans, like Rep. Delay, House majority leader until he stepped down following the indictment.

Partisan or not, the indictment is beyond question the latest round in a savage Texas political brawl that makes even Illinois look a little beanbag.

The main round, so far, is the 2002 Texas legislative elections, the one in which the indictment accuses Delay of improperly channeling corporate money. Going in, the Democrats held a 78-72 edge in the Texas House; coming out the Republicans had an overwhelming 88-62 margin and with it control of Texas government for the first time since the carpetbaggers pulled out after post-Civil War reconstruction.

The Republicans immediately used their new power to re-district the state, re-doing a map put together by a federal court after the legislature failed to agree on one after the 2000 Census. The Democrats tried to stop it by fleeing to Oklahoma, thus preventing a quorum from gathering to pass the new map.

Mr. DeLay used his clout with the federal government to help track down the D's. Got help from the Federal Aviation Commission and the FBI in finding them. (This exercise in clout was among the DeLay sins cited in a reprimand from the House Ethics Committee in 2004.)

The roughhouse tactics finally rounded up a quorum and the re-districting was approved. The next consequence came in the 2004 election, when the Texas Congressional delegation, a 17-13 Democratic group in 2000, ended up with a 19-13 GOP edge, thus providing some breathing room for what otherwise would have a pretty slim GOP majority in Congress.

While Mr. Earle has been busy investigating and indicting DeLay and his allies, the Texas legislature has been considering ways to strip him of control of the "public integrity unit" he uses to prosecute politicians. Haven't managed it yet, but the efforts are moving forward on multiple tracks.

Even while playing his outsize role in Texas politics, Mr. DeLay stands large, if largely unknown, on the national stage. Following in the footsteps of Texas master Lyndon Johnson, Mr. DeLay for his entire 20-plus years in Congress, has dispensed money to candidates all over the country, piling up chits that he ruthlessly calls when needed. While Mr. Johnson tended to deal with cash in unmarked envelopes, Mr. DeLay's largess can be substantially tracked through campaign finance reports. opensecrets.org has a well organized presentation of transactions by Americans for a Republican Majority, his principal political action committee.

That info's already being used to beat up DeLay allies. Jim Nussle, who's giving up an Iowa congressional seat to seek the Republican gubernatorial nomination, is already being deluged with Democrat demands to return money he's taken from DeLay over the years. Thus, this Texas fight will further reverberate from state to state and race to race.

In the courtroom, Mr. DeLay's fate may turn on whether his Texans for a Republian Majority committee spent the corporate money on "administrative" costs, which Texas law permits, or on candidate solicitation and support, which the law forbids. Given the great flood of money in American politics, both that fine point and the amounts in question --about $150,000 -- are pretty trivial.

Mr. Earle keeps saying, though, that the law is the law and he'll enforce it.

It's bare-knuckle stuff, like Mr. DeLay dishes out.


Following is a list of Mr. Earle's prosecutions of politicians, from a March 1, 2004, story in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

-- U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R), 1994: Charged with misdemeanor and felony counts of official misconduct and records tampering. Acquitted on all counts after Earle dropped the case.

-- State Reps. Lane Denton and Betty Denton, D-Waco, 1993-1995: Betty Denton indicted on felony counts of perjury and records tampering; pleaded guilty to lesser charges, got six months probation and a $2,000 fine. Lane Denton convicted of felony theft; sentenced to 60 days in jail, $12,000 in fines and six years' probation.

-- House Speaker Gib Lewis, D-Fort Worth, 1992: Charged with gift-reporting and financial-disclosure violations. Entered a plea bargain on misdemeanor ethics charges; paid a $2,000 fine.

-- State Rep. Chip Staniswallis, R-Amarillo, 1990: Indicted for tampering with government records; pleaded guilty to felony theft.

-- Attorney General Jim Mattox (D), 1985: Indicted on felony bribery charges. Acquitted.

-- Ronnie Earle (D), 1983: Earle filed misdemeanor charges against himself for untimely reporting of 1981 and 1982 campaign finances; paid a $200 fine.

-- State Treasurer Warren G. Harding (D), 1982: Indicted on two felonies for political misuse of office. Pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges.

-- State Rep. Mike Martin, R-Longview, 1981: Indicted on aggravated perjury charges after lying about having himself shot to generate publicity. Pleaded guilty; agreed to resign.

-- State Sen. Gene Jones, D-Houston, 1980: Indicted for official misconduct. Entered plea bargain for misuse of state computer.

-- Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Yarbrough (D), 1977: Indicted and convicted of aggravated perjury for lying to grand jury investigating allegations that he was plotting to have an associate killed. Voluntarily gave up seat.

Compiled from Star-Telegram archives

Posted by jcb at September 29, 2005 04:20 PM


The eyes of Bushexas are upon them-----goes back to my "to many waa-waa people" comment of a few days ago.

Posted by: Dennis hamilton at October 3, 2005 03:57 PM

Every time I see Earle on TV, he seems like a man who knows what he's doing and is perfectly comfortable doing it. DeLay knows what he's doing, too, but he doesn't seem nearly as comfy.

Posted by: Vita at October 7, 2005 04:18 PM