Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle’s indictment of Texas Republican Rep. Tom DeLay is a last-second desperation shot from deep in the back court by one of the worst shooters in the Democratic Party.
Of course, there is always a remote chance Earle might score. But judging from the initial trajectory of his indictment of the House majority leader, it looks like an air ball. It may even be so wildly off target it ends up injuring some of the Democratic partisans now mindlessly cheering it on as part of their campaign strategy to make alleged Republican ethical lapses a central issue in next year’s midterm elections.
This is not the first time Earle has thrown up a politically suspect indictment.
In 1993, he charged Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison with allegedly misusing staff and equipment in her state treasury office for political purposes. The indictment was handed down five days after Hutchison won a special election to fill the Senate vacancy created when Democratic Sen. Lloyd Bentson became Treasury secretary in the Clinton Administration. Citing the “publicized raid” Earle conducted on Hutchison’s state government office, and noting that “stories about the probe have been leaked for weeks,” the Dallas Morning News editorialized: “The timing of Mr. Earle’s actions and the heavy-handed manner in which his staff seized records from the treasury office leave the district attorney open to charges the probe is politically motivated.”
When the case finally went to trial in February 1994, Earle, lacking the evidence to prove his charges against Hutchison, asked the judge to dismiss them before a jury could be sworn in. That would have allowed Earle to go after Hutchison again, at a later time, with the same charges. Because of the prohibition against double jeopardy, however, dropping the case after a jury was seated meant Earle would never be able to harass Hutchison with the charges again.
Judge John F. Onion, Jr., spurned Earle’s request and swore in a jury. Earle then refused to present any case. Onion ordered the jurors to acquit Hutchison, which they promptly did. He then told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram he was “taken aback” by Earle’s move. “I thought they were loaded for bear,” he said.
But after months of conducting a highly publicized hunt to bag one of Texas’s most high-profile Republicans, Earle arrived in court firing only blanks.
The blatantly political nature of Earle’s current pursuit of Tom DeLay was exposed in May when Earle traveled to Dallas to be the featured speaker at a fund raiser for the Texas Values and Action Coalition, a Democratic political action committee. “This case is not just about Tom DeLay,” he told the Democratic contributors who had ponied up to hear him speak. “If it isn’t this Tom DeLay, it’ll be another one, just like one bully replaces the one before.”
Earle was unrepentant when he was criticized for these remarks. “I’d speak to any group interested in honest and open government,” he said. “I’ve said the same things a number of times.”
Like his indictment of Hutchison, Earle’s indictment of DeLay was preceded by a highly publicized investigation. Like his case against Hutchison, this one, too, looks short on evidence.
In fact, it includes no evidence at all against DeLay.
Earle vaguely charges that DeLay participated in a “conspiracy” to violate a Texas law that prohibits corporations from contributing to candidates for state office. The indictment says several corporations contributed a total of $155,000 to Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC), a political action committee DeLay founded, advised and helped raise money for. But it is legal in Texas for corporations to contribute money to PACs for administrative expenses.
Secondly, the indictment says an officer of TRMPAC sent a $190,000 check to the Republican National State Elections Committee (RNSEC) in Washington, D.C. But this, too, is legal.
Thirdly, the indictment says that RNSEC made contributions to state candidates in Texas. Yet, this is legal also.
Earle’s charges are not so much a conspiracy indictment as a conspiracy theory—a theory that plays out in the alternative universe of “hard” and “soft” money and the bookkeeping practices of political committees.
Where’s the Evidence?
The hypothesis is that the money RNSEC contributed to the Texas candidates was the exact same money that the corporations contributed to TRMPAC, and that not only did the officers of TRMPAC know this and intend to violate the law by causing this to happen, but that DeLay knew they were doing it, and he, too, intended that they should violate the law. The Washington Post, no friend of DeLay, reported: “For DeLay to be guilty, he would have had to have both been informed of the transaction and approved the transaction, according to a source familiar with the case.” The Post also noted: “No evidence to support the conspiracy charge was cited in the indictment.”
DeLay has been adamant in his response to Earle. He denies the charge without any nuance or ambiguity. “My defense in this case will not be technical or legalistic: it will be categorical and absolute,” he said. “I am innocent. Mr. Earle and his staff know it. And I will prove it.”
After the indictment was announced, DeLay made the rounds of cable news shows and answered questions, stressing he had no hand the in the day-to-day operations of the PAC, and that, besides, as he told Brit Hume on Fox News, “everything that they did, they did with the approval of lawyers and accountants.”
DeLay is now represented by Dick DeGuerin, the same lawyer who successfully defended Hutchison against Earle. Appearing on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” DeGuerin said “there was a firewall” maintained between corporate contributions and money that could be given to candidates. He was confident he would not just defeat Earle but prove DeLay’s innocence.
Asked by Matthews how he would prove it, he said: “By laying out the facts and show[ing] how the money was kept separate. You show the separate bank account, which the lawyers have shown Ronnie Earle and his associates. You trace the money. Follow the money. The money went from the corporations to TRMPAC and then to the Republican Party, and then back out to places where it could be lawfully sent.”
He was adamant the other people charged in Earle’s conspiracy theory will exonerate DeLay as well as themselves. “[T]he other people who have been charged have told Ronnie Earl, either directly or through their lawyers, that no matter what Ronnie Earl offers them, a walk in the park, that they don’t have any evidence against Tom DeLay. Tom DeLay didn’t participate in their decision-making process.”
Eleven years ago, DeGuerin slam-dunked Earle when he floated his long-shot indictment against Hutchison. Don’t be surprised if he does it again.