In Texas, The Hammer Runs Into an Anvil

Prosecutor Ronnie Earle put off his retirement to take on Tom DeLay.
Prosecutor Ronnie Earle put off his retirement to take on Tom DeLay. (By Thomas Terry -- Associated Press)
By Juliet Eilperin and Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 2, 2005

AUSTIN -- 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."

It's unlikely that Earle will be reminiscing over a kitchen table anytime soon with DeLay, the powerful Texas Republican with the nickname "The Hammer," whom 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.)

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