Sitting here on the outskirts of Austin Texas, the home territory of District Attorney Ronnie Earle, I get exposed to some things that those in other parts of the country may not be picking up on from the news stories about the indictment of House Speaker Tom DeLay.
To start off with, people outside of Texas seem not to be aware of Ronnie Earle’s long history of vindictive and unprincipled attacks against Republican officials and personal rivals.
Earle sees himself as the last bastion of populist and progressive ideals in an increasingly Republican dominated state and with good reason. He’s the only Democrat with prosecutorial powers which cover the entire state because of special priveleges given to the Austin DA’s office under Texas law. He’s self-righteous and opposed to the power elite, and willing to use his position to prosecute cases which have little merit but substantial political impact. With the backing of the far left in Austin he has an unassailable position from which he can go after anyone with an indictment from a spoon fed grand jury and get away with it, faccing few consequences if he fails. He’s held this position for almost 30 years and isn’t likely to lose it any time soon. If he does fail in one of his prosecutions he can try and try again because his local constituency has infinite patience for wasted time and effort so long as it involved pillorying Republicans or even Democrat political rivals.
He’s quick to claim that he’s prosecuted more Democrat than Republican officials, but fails to mention that most of his prosecutions of Democrats were of minor figures on obvious criminal charges, or were political attacks targetting personal enemies within the Democratic party.
His current crusade against Tom DeLay is reminiscent of his attack on Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison in 1994. As she was running for the Senate, Earle tried to derail her campaign by launching an investigation into supposed misbehavior while she was State Treasurer, including misuse of state telephones and assaulting a staff member. The first time he filed the charges the grand jury indictment was disqualified because of irregularities in the composition of the jury. He convened another grand jury and brough the charges a second time. This time, when Earle took his evidence in front of a judge it became immediately apparent that he had no evidence and was merely trying to use the indictment to smear Hutchison politically. He then attempted to withdraw the charges after being questioned about whether there was any actual evidence at the pre-trial hearing. The judge refused to allow Earle to withdraw the charges and instead instructed the jury to return a “not guilty” verdict so that the charges could not be refiled, thereby preventing Earle’s standard practice in these witchunts of filing the same charges over and over until he can find a sympathetic judge or jury and make them stick.
There’s also a similarity to his accusations of bribery against former State Attorney General and political rival Jim Mattox in 1985, another instance in which he used multiple grand juries to ram through indictments without significant supporting evidence resulting in a case which was dismissed for lack of evidence once it got infront of a judge.
Earle’s career as a prosecutor has been marred by controversy in other areas as well. One disaster was the very high profile case of LaCresha Murray, an 11 year-old African American from Austin whom many feel was prosecuted on the basis of illegally obtained evidence in the case of the death of a child she was babysitting. Murray was a minor who was detained for four days without notifying her parents, questioned without the advice of a lawyer and basically manipulated into signing a confession which she could not even read because she was functionally illiterate.
The case was eventually thrown out by an appeals court after she had spent 3 years in prison. Earle was accused in racism over this case, and many felt that it was inappropriate to charge an 11 year old as an adult with capital murder. Murray was the youngest person ever indicted as an adult in the state of Texas. Ultimately the appeals court concluded that Murray could not possibly have even inflicted the injuries the dead baby received at the time the baby was in her care.
Earle has come under fire recently in direct connection to his current activities over the fact that he has devoted such a large portion of his office’s resources to the Tom DeLay investigation. Complaints have been numerous that his assistants are pleading out major felonies for relatively light sentences so that they don’t have to spend time in court and can concentrate on their more political prosecutions. Crime victims in Austin have been outspoken about their concern that Earle’s office is not making their cases a priority while they focus on higher profile cases.
When we look at the actual campaign against DeLay, Earle’s efforts seem to be truly extraordinary. Working with virtually no actual evidence against DeLay, Earle has gone through seven different grand juries to find one which would bring a viable indictment.
The basic issue here is the donation of funds from several business groups to the Texans for a Republican Majority PAC, which realized that it could not legally spend the money for the state candidate campaigns it was intended for and therefore passed the donations on to the Republican National Committee, which could legally spend the money on local campaigns, along with a note suggesting who the money should go to, effectively bypassing the Texas campaign finance law restricting PAC contributions to state office candidates. If TRMPAC had returned the money and told the contributors to send it to the RNC instead, there would have been no crime, but since they forwarded the money directly they violated Texas law. DeLay’s role in this was solely as the person who spearheaded raising the money in the first place and he was apparently not involved in any way in the ultimate disposition of the funds.
Before Earle began his crusade against DeLay federal prosecutors had already charged TRMPAC and its officials for these questionable activities. Their indictments make no reference to DeLay as being involved in any way.
Using the federal indictments as his starting point, Earle attempted to indict DeLay on charges of violating Texas Election law as part of a conspiracy by TRMPAC to bypass restrictions on corporate donations. The problem with this accusation is that DeLay was not directly involved with TRMPAC’s disposition of the money, and the law under which he was indicted did not exist at the time the alleged crime took place, but was only passed a year later.
After going through five grand juries Earle managed to get an indictment against DeLay, but he almost immediately had to go back to the grand jury to look for another charge to indict DeLay on because it was clear that his attempt to apply a non-existent law to DeLay’s actions Ex Post Facto would not stand up in court. His new idea was to indict DeLay on money laundering on the theory that TRMPAC had taken illegally donated money and cleaned it up by passing it on to the RNC. The first grand jury Earle empaneled refused to indict DeLay due to lack of evidence, but when their term ran out Earle was able to get a money laundering indictment from the new grand jury.
In the process of indicting DeLay and the management of TRMPAC Earle has had to go through seven different grand juries and has ended up with a felony indictment of DeLay for money laundering which is entirely dependent on proving DeLay was involved in a conspiracy to fraudulently transfer the donations, for which there appears to be little or no evidence, as well as proving that the original donations were actually illegal, which is not entirely clear because the Texas campaign finance law is poorly conceived. Corporate donations to PACs are legal in Texas if they are for administrative expenses, but illegal if they are to be passed on directly to candidates or spent on their behalf. This law is ambiguous and probably ought to be struck down, because it’s virtually impossible to say which dollar came from which source once they are all in a bank account together. TRMPAC can reasonably argue that the money from corporate donations went to office expenses, while the equivalent amount from legitimate sources is what they sent on to the RNC for candidate campaigns.
Based on Earle’s past track record in this kind of case – with Hutchinson and Maddox and others – it won’t be at all surprising to see the entire case which has gotten so much national news attention fall apart completely once it gets into an actual courtroom. That’s Earle’s pattern. He gets a lot of political mileage out of an indictment, but then the case folds for lack of evidence when put to the test. Earle has a pattern of doing this, but thus far he’s avoided the consequences for it. Under the rules of the Texas Bar Earle could be disbarred for pursuing “a charge that he knows is not supported by probable cause,” and this indictment like those against Huthison and Maddox comes awfully close to that line. He has also been accused of using excessive pre-trial publicity to prejudice juries and to smear DeLay and others he has accused with little merit. This is a violation of the Texas Rules of Disciplinary Conduct for lawyers which “strictly prohibits prosecutors from attempting to influence prospective jury members through pretrial publicity.”
Of course, DeLay’s forces are now striking back at Earle. They’re running a humorous, sarcastic ad on the radio about Earle and his partisan legal crusades. They’ve also subpoenaed Earle to appear in court to prove that he actually has some evidence to support his case and to explain irregularities in his conduct with jury members which may have led to unfairly influencing the outcome of his indictments. It’s too much to hope that any of this would lead to Earle being disbarred, but as someone living in the Austin area I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
By all indications DeLay is dirty as hell and not a particularly good representative for Texas. He’s certainly done some awfully questionable things over the years starting with his various questionable fundraising connections and ending with his ridiculous Terry Schiavo grandstanding. But does this make Ronnie Earle’s partisan crusade against him something to be proud of? It’s one thing to take DeLay to task for things which he actually did, but to try to just smear him politically by filing unsupportable charges in a basically manufactured case seems excessive and vindictive, but that’s nothing new for Ronnie Earle.