October 01, 2005

Justice Delay-ed

Republican Congressman Tom DeLay of Texas has been indicted by a grand jury in Travis County, TX for conspiracy to launder money through the Republican National Committee, and has had to step down temporarily from his post as House Majority Leader. Immediately upon being indicted, he sat before the cameras and lashed out at Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, stating that Earle is "rogue district attorney" and an"unabashed partisan zealot."

Since then, he has been indicted on additional charges, and he and his spokespeople have countered with additional statements, including calling Earle "the Elmer Fudd of politics." Presumably this refers to Elmer Fudd's constant, but unsuccessful, hunting of Bugs Bunny. That's an interesting contrast to the name given to Kenneth Starr when he was pursuing President Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky matter: Inspector Javert. Perhaps this is a reflection of the intelligence Republicans and Democrats attribute to their respective bases. At any rate, these attacks on Earle are understandible, and perhaps even tactically clever, in attempting to make Delay the victim rather than the perpetrator, and to make the prosecutor's motives, rather than the crimes alleged, the issue. In today's media society, the court of public opinion is as important as the court of law. But thus far there is little or no evidence that these attacks contain any truth.

The two key figures that have jumped out of the coverage of this issue are 15 and 12. 15 is the number of state officials Ronnie Earle has prosecuted. 12 is the number who are Democrats. On its face, that would seem more than enough to insulate Earle from charges of partisanship. And lest someone try to claim that the 12 Democrats were somehow small fish, consider that one of them was Attorney General Jim Maddox. The highest law enforcement official in the state. Another was Assistant Attorney General Gary Bledsoe. Imagine a Republican federal prosecutor bringing up U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, or his predecessor John Ashcroft, on charges, say, of ordering or promoting the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, in violation of U.S. law including the Geneva Convention, which is the law of the land. Don't hold your breath. That's comparable to these prior Ronnie Earle prosecutions. It hardly sounds like the work of a rogue partisan.

If more evidence is needed, consider that Earle investigated Texas Democratic Congressman Martin Frost based on a complaint by GOP state Senator Bob Deuell that Mr. Frost misused corporate funds in 2000, even though Deuell's complaint was widely seen as baseless and intended as a distraction from, and even payback for, the House ethics investigations that were taking place against DeLay at the time. Finally, it has even been reported that Earle, who has been the DA since 1976 and has been re-elected by his fellow Texans many times, filed misdemeanor charges against himself, and paid a fine as penalty. himself in the mid-80s, for missing a deadline to file financial disclosure forms. Supposedly, he paid several hundred dollars in fines.
It sounds as though Ronnie Earle is a tough, by-the-book prosecutor who is not afraid to go after violations of the law no matter who commits them. He sounds more like Dudley Do-Right than Elmer Fudd. Aren't Republicans the ones who like to call themselves tough on crime? Does that only apply to Democratic criminals?

Sifting through all the name-calling, the only evidence of Earle's alleged partisanship that DeLay and his supporters point to is that he previously brought charges against current Texas GOP Senator, then-Senate candidate, Kay Bailey Hutchison. Apparently, a Democratic prosecutor in Texas is considered a rogue partisan if he brings charges against a Republican, no matter how many officials he has prosecuted in his own party. In the Hutchison case, the judge indicated before trial that he had doubts about the admissibility of Earle's evidence, so Earle withdrew the charges. The judge then directed the jury to acquit Hutchison. But again, this hardly sounds like the work of Elmer Fudd or Inspector Javert or Klondike Kat (who "always gets his mouse"). If Earle was intent on pursuing a case against Hutchison out of partisan spite, he could have continued to prosecute her instead of withdrawing the charges, dragging out the case even if he eventually lost.

Another fact to remember is that Ronnie Earle did not indict Tom DeLay. A grand jury of DeLay's peers did. Why would they have done so if the charges were as baseless as DeLay claims? On the contrary, according to the Dallas Morning News, "Grand jurors were presented a load of evidence, including testimony and phone records, that led them to believe Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, should be tried on a conspiracy charge, the leader of the Travis County grand jury that indicted the congressman said yesterday. 'It was not one of those sugar-coated deals that we handed to [District Attorney] Ronnie Earle,' William Gibson said. He added: 'Mr. Earle has stacks and stacks of papers — evidence of telephone calls from Mr. DeLay and everybody.'"

Finally, it is possible, despite the evidence thus far, that Ronnie Earle was motivated in part by politics -- but that Tom DeLay is still guilty of the crimes with which he has been charged. The two are not mutually exclusive. If Earle acted improperly, he should be held accountable for his actions, but that does not give Tom DeLay a free pass to commit crimes.

It is not yet known if DeLay is guilty. Perhaps he is a victim of hardball partisan politics, which would be extremely ironic, given that his utter mastery of that very craft has earned him the nickname "the Hammer." Or perhaps he is merely a victim of his own hubris and corruption.


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