One morning in December, a district judge named Mike Lynch stepped on a courthouse elevator in Austin and gawked at the last hero and hope of Texas Democrats. Ronnie Earle, the Travis County district attorney, has gray-black hair, a nose thickened and bent from being broken several times, and a protruding front tooth that slightly overlaps the other, which is chipped. His visage has been likened to that of a hanging judge, but when he grins, his other self comes across—ornery, funny, and a bit reckless. Lynch guffawed, because Ronnie did not customarily arrive at work amid the first wave of commuters and because he was wearing a blue suit, a white shirt, and a tie showing not one wrinkle. “Eight forty-five and you’re dressed like that?” Lynch ribbed him. “Who’s here to see you now?”
Ronnie ducked his head and muttered, “ Esquire.”
I’ve known him fairly well, in an occasional and social way, for thirty years, and having recently collaborated on a book about Tom DeLay, I was more than familiar with Ronnie’s well-publicized investigation involving the House majority leader. The GOP gain of five House seats in last fall’s election consisted entirely of districts that the Legislature had gerrymandered to the specifications of DeLay and a few close friends. But last summer, Ronnie and staff prosecutors had presented evidence to a Travis County grand jury, which, in September, returned indictments against three prominent associates of DeLay’s and eight corporations on 32 counts of money laundering and unlawfully injecting corporate contributions into legislative races in 2002. More indictments are expected. DeLay and Texas Speaker of the House Tom Craddick have hired teams of top criminal defense attorneys. Suddenly, Ronnie is a national figure. The showdown with GOP power has cast the lone wolf prosecutor as Gary Cooper in High Noon.
I was curious to see how Ronnie was holding up, so I got in line to see him. It was some line. When I arrived at his office for an appointment, the first name on the sign-in sheet belonged to a prominent photographer shooting for Esquire. A couple of lines down the sheet, I saw the signature of Rich Bonin, a producer for 60 Minutes. Below that was the signature of the Esquire writer, John Richardson. The Los Angeles Times also had a writer in town working on a profile. I laughed and added my name to the list.
Presently, Ronnie stuck his head out the door. “I’m sorry to keep you waiting. I’ve got this other guy …”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said.
He came back out in a while and led me on a winding trek through quiet hallways and an empty courtroom to a party celebrating a colleague’s retirement. “I’m not very good at this,” Ronnie murmured. “My idea is to just work to the end of the room.” I spoke for a moment with a probate judge, Guy Herman, a former justice of the peace who would later tell me about the time Ronnie came to see him with a long face, charged himself with failing to file a campaign finance report on time, pled guilty, and voluntarily paid his $200 fine. “That’s Ronnie,” Herman chuckled. “Mr. Ethics.” I caught up with Ronnie as he chatted with Bob Perkins, a district judge. Perkins beamed at him and said, “I was reading about you in the paper this morning.”
The day before, Diversified Collection Services had agreed to a deal that was unique to Travis County and the philosophy of its district attorney. It had been alleged that the company of bill collectors had given $50,000 in illegal contributions to the DeLay-inspired Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee ( TRMPAC) in 2002. The agreement contained the line: “Defendant further acknowledges that the basis for the Texas prohibition against corporate contributions is that they constitute a genuine threat to democracy.”
Lawyers for some of the other indicted corporations jeered Ronnie for pontificating and injecting the law with his conceits, but they agreed that he was holding a gun to the head of their clients. DCS had flipped—agreed to share information and testify against others—and conventional wisdom held that the more defendants who flipped, the greater the likelihood that DeLay, Craddick, and other figures would be indicted.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Ronnie remarked to Perkins about the story in that day’s Austin American-Statesman. “We weren’t going to file that until four-thirty and thought we’d kept it pretty quiet. At four o’clock the phone rang and the reporter said, ‘Have you been trying to call me?’”
The judge laughed and clapped Ronnie on the shoulder: “There are no secrets in this building. The walls have ears.”
Ronnie decided he’d been festive enough. Back upstairs, he looked at the reception area and said to me, “Listen, I’ve got to finish up with this fellow from Esquire. Come in here where you’ll be more comfortable, and we’ll go to this other gathering in a little while.” He left me in a sun-bright conference room, where I found a book to browse. Half an hour later, he returned and said, “Would it bother you if this other guy comes with us?”
“No,” I said, surprised. “It’s fine with me. If it is with him.”
Ronnie took me down the hall to his spacious corner office and introduced me to John Richardson, a tall and amiable man who lives in a New York City suburb. We made small talk about editors and said guarded things like “When’s your deadline?” and “When’s yours?”
With an air of relief, Ronnie sat with his back to us, checking his e-mail. “Do y’all want to see this AP story?” he asked.
“What’s it about?” I replied.
“Well, me,” he said. The story was headlined “Earle’s Last Stand.” Ronnie claims he’s amused and somewhat alarmed by the media