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The Texas DA pitted against the power of Tom DeLay

By Kris AxtmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 3, 2004


Justice of the Peace Guy Herman was sitting in his office one day when a prosecutor walked in to file charges for improper campaign-finance reporting. Against himself.

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The man was Ronnie Earle, the Travis County district attorney, bringing a self-incriminating complaint for tardy reporting in 1981 and 1982.

"He had missed the deadline by a day," says Mr. Herman, now a Travis County probate judge. "He could have filed that report late and nobody would have paid any attention. But instead he came in and said, 'I violated the law and should be fined.' So I fined him."

$212 to be exact.

Herman says it offered his first glimpse into how seriously Mr. Earle takes the integrity of the political system. It would not be his last.

Because the Texas Attorney General's office does not have the authority to prosecute those suspected of committing crimes in their dealings with the state, the responsibility falls on Earle and his band of prosecutors in Travis County, home of the state capital.

It is a responsibility he has embraced, prosecuting 15 high-profile cases against Republican and Democratic politicians during his 27 years in office. Many have drawn sharp criticism from both parties.

Yet no case has been more important, or controversial, than the one Earle is now pursuing against a political action committee tied to House majority leader Tom DeLay (R) - one of the nation's most powerful politicians.

To Earle partisans, it's an example of his fearlessness in pursuing political malfeasance, a trait they say makes him the state's, and perhaps the country's, top ethics cop. But detractors see the investigation as a witch hunt, another case of the silver-thatched prosecutor acting out of political motivation and for personal gain.

Mr. DeLay calls the Democratic Earle "vindictive and partisan." So far, three of DeLay's associates have been indicted on charges of illegally funneling hundreds of thousands of corporate dollars to state GOP candidates in 2002. The Republican sweep that year fueled redistricting efforts in Texas that deepened Congressional control in 2004.

Preparing for the possibility that DeLay might be charged, Republicans in Congress recently voted to change their rule requiring an indicted leader to relinquish his post.

For his part, Earle says the attacks are no different from those by the 15 other politicians he's prosecuted in almost three decades as Travis County DA. All have accused him of being politically motivated. "What else are they going to say?" he asks.

A fourth grand jury is convening in Austin, in the case Earle calls the most important of his career. "I take very seriously the prohibition against corporate and labor union money polluting the electoral process. It is a hallowed inheritance from our Texas forbearers and is central to the protection of democracy."

Indeed, to those who know him, Earle has always exhibited a strong moral streak - from his formative years growing up in a small town outside Fort Worth, to his time on the Austin night court, to his political service in the state legislature. But they contend his morality is tempered by his compassion.

"Ronnie is very principled and will do the right thing even if it isn't the smartest political thing to do," says Ellen Halbert, a victim's rights advocate who first met Earle when he was prosecuting the man who raped, beat, and stabbed her in 1986. "But he is also very sensitive. He can get emotional about a sunrise or a sunset - and I have seen him do that."

Earle was born and raised on a cattle ranch in Birdville, Texas, where pronouncing all the town's consonants got you beaten up. He was an Eagle Scout, earned money life-guarding, played football, and was president of the student council.

"Ronnie is the beneficiary of a well-grounded childhood in small-town Texas, and he came up in a more innocent time, both culturally and politically," says Ken Oden, a former Travis County Attorney now in private practice. "And I think his early years have made him a better prosecutor."

Earle enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin in 1960 with an eye on journalism, but struggled with typing because his fingers had been twisted in a football injury. His professors told him C's in journalism were not good enough, so he went to law school.

After graduating, he worked in Gov. John Connally's office before becoming an Austin municipal court judge. Drunks, prostitutes, and petty criminals were the usual night-court fare, and Earle says he learned a lot from both police officers and those they arrested. "It imprinted on my soul the fact that the courts are for the people," he says in an amiable Texas drawl.