The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Friday, December 03, 2004

Ronnie Earle's self-prosecution: no slam-dunk

The Dem talking-points on Earle, in response to Tom DeLay and friends' propaganda campaign, start with the fact that most pols he prosecuted were Dems [1].

The follow-up is that he prosecuted himself. A piece on Earle in the CSM yesterday ledes - and a very feature lede too! - with the story:
Justice of the Peace Guy Herman was sitting in his office one day when a prosecutor walked in to file charges for improper campaign-finance reporting. Against himself.

The man was Ronnie Earle, the Travis County district attorney, bringing a self-incriminating complaint for tardy reporting in 1981 and 1982.

It's an effective story, from more than one angle: the George Washington cherry tree vibe, for instance. And the Oprah confessional - America love the repentant sinner!

It's just because it's an effective story that I feel moved to doubt the motivation [2]. I doubt that he deliberately filed late; but perhaps he saw the advantage of arranging his own little integrity test, that he was pre-ordained to pass, to have in his locker whenever his probity was called into question.

And it's so much snappier than anything John Kerry managed to get from his Vietnam service to bolster his national security credentials.

Moving beyond hypothesis, the CSM piece has some useful background: personal bio (more good stories) and stuff on earlier cases.

On the point of jurisdiction, it says
Unlike most states, Texas does not give its attorney general the power to prosecute criminal acts at the state level. That task goes to the Travis County district attorney - a responsibility Earle took on, forming a public-integrity unit to look into such abuses.

Chapter 2 of the Code of Criminal Procedure lays down the jurisdiction of the various species of law officers in Texas: no special mention there of the Travis County DA, that I can find. The rule must be expressed differently, or be somewhere else.

The piece refers to the prosecution of Kay Bailey Hutchison
for allegedly misusing state telephones for political business. At a pretrial hearing, the judge questioned the admissibility of the prosecution's evidence and Earle declined to present a case. That led to Senator Hutchison's acquittal, and many saw the DA as an amateur.

And to that of
...Attorney General Jim Mattox for bribery in 1985. While pushing a state lawsuit against Mobil Oil Co., the Democratic AG argued with Mobil's lawyers, which led to his indictment.

He was acquitted and years later, Jim Marston, a civil lawyer in Austin and friend of Mr. Mattox, asked Earle why he went ahead with the questionable case.

"I said, 'Ronnie, how can it be an abuse of power to threaten a lawyer? We threaten each other all the time.' He told me that elected officials are held to a higher standard. They are supposed to be [above suspicion] like Caesar's wife." It was then that Mr. Marston realized how deep Earle's principles run. "Ronnie Earle is a Boy Scout who is offended by wrongdoings, chief among them, public officials' abuse of power."

Just the faintest whiff of high-grade Capracorn there.

Marston also reassures us about the DeLay case:
If I have any complaint about Ronnie, it's that he is overly cautious about who he prosecutes. The fact that it has taken two years to investigate Tom DeLay is a sign not of partisanship, but of being completely careful...Ronnie is not going to prosecute a lousy case."

Almost a case of Everybody Loves Ronnie. When your ex-prosecutee's friend is handing out glowing testimonials...

The piece as a whole is certainly no whitewash job - the cases he discusses are from his failures column. It's the feature soft-edged quality to it, the general lack of any criticism that hasn't a compliment wrapped up inside, that makes me a tad suspicious.

It crossed my mind that the scribe, Kris Axtman, might have been a parachutist from Boston who had been given the tour. However, according to Mr Google, he has a load of pieces datelined Houston going back at least to 2002. So that explanation is clearly out.

My first piece on the subject (October 3) asked What's Ronnie Earle's deal? All told, I'm not much further forward in the quest for an answer.

As ever, more research needed...

  1. To which one counter-TP is, Earle goes back so far as Travis County DA (to 1977) that the pool of prosecutable pols were mostly Dems (the GOP secured the trifecta in Austin only with the 2002 elections).

    Still nothing definitive on whether the total is 15 or 16.

    (Earlier Plawg pieces on Earle.)

  2. I have no reason to doubt the basic facts: though doings in East Texas are not necessarily less opaque than those in the Mekong Delta, say.

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