Rep. Tom DeLay dismissed the Democratic Texas prosecutor who spearheaded his indictment yesterday as "an unabashed partisan zealot." But Ronnie Earle's 28-year record is complex and mixed, including a failed bid to convict a big-name Republican and successful prosecutions of many Democrats, big and small.
Earle, the Travis County district attorney since 1977, is unquestionably a Democrat, having won repeated elections on his party's ticket in the liberal-leaning state capital of Austin. And he is no DeLay fan, recently comparing the fallen House majority leader to a bully. One of his favorite sayings is: "Being called vindictive and partisan by Tom DeLay is like being called ugly by a frog."
But Earle also likes to say that power cannot be abused by those who lack it, and for much of his career, Democrats dominated Texas politics. His supporters cite a list of Democratic officials who were convicted or pleaded guilty after Earle prosecuted them. They include a state legislator from El Paso in 2000, and two from Waco in 1995; a San Antonio voter registrar in 1992; and the state treasurer in 1982. Earle even prosecuted himself in 1983, paying a $212 fine for tardy campaign finance disclosure filings.
DeLay, unimpressed, ripped Earle yesterday as "a rogue district attorney" engaged in "blatant political partisanship."
Earle shrugged off the accusations. "My job is to prosecute felons," he told reporters in Austin. The indictment, he said, showed that "the grand jury believed there was probable reason to believe that these offenses occurred."
Paul Burka, senior executive editor of Texas Monthly magazine and a longtime observer of the state's politics, said in an interview, "I don't think Ronnie is seen here as a total partisan." He added that Earle "didn't look the other way in his own party" when public officials broke or bent laws. Burka said Earle is "not your typical DA" who talks tough about wiping out crime and sending miscreants to prison. Instead, Burka said, "he talks about 'holistic approaches to crime,' " sometimes to the bemusement of fellow Texans.
Earle, who practices yoga and quotes the poet W.B. Yeats, has taught a college class called "Reweaving the Fabric of Community."
But his prosecutions of public officials have drawn the greatest attention, and Republicans point to one in particular that went badly for Earle. In 1993, he targeted newly elected U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R), who was indicted on allegations of using state employees for personal and campaign purposes. Hutchison vehemently denied the charges, and when the trial was about to commence in early 1994, Earle announced he was dropping the case. Ever since, DeLay and others have said the case showed Earle to be an unprofessional, partisan-motivated activist.
His defenders, however, cite two high-profile prosecutions of Democrats. In late 1990, Earle went after the powerful Texas House speaker, Gib Lewis, who was his friend. Lewis pleaded guilty in 1992 to filing false financial statements and soon retired.
Earle failed, however, in pursuing a bribery case against then-Attorney General Jim Mattox (D) in 1985. Later, Mattox praised Earle's fairness, if not his prosecutorial skills.
"You might question his competence as district attorney," Mattox told reporters, "but I don't think you could question his motivations as being overly partisan."
DeLay attorney Dick DeGuerin doesn't buy it. "He's attempting to destroy Tom DeLay," he told reporters in Austin yesterday. "Tom DeLay changed the face of Texas politics. Nobody can deny that. But Ronnie Earle wants to destroy him because of that."
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin in Austin and research editor Lucy Shackelford in Washington contributed to this report.