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 fuss—that he’s never been a publicity seeker, that in this prosecution he’s only doing his job—but how could anyone be indifferent to it? He grabbed his briefcase and ushered us through the maze of hallways to an elevator to the parking garage. We were going to a reception for activists focused on issues like homelessness and child care. “Look,” John said to me. “I don’t want to intrude on your story.”

“Not at all,” I said. “You want this? We can flip a coin.” We agreed to go together. Ronnie grinned at the discomfort he had caused us and stowed a grandbaby’s car seat in his trunk. From the courthouse he drove past the Governor’s Mansion and the Capitol, in search of a restored home known by its historic name, the Old School. Ronnie missed it the first pass and wheeled a U-turn. “That’s the second time I’ve seen you make an illegal U-turn,” John teased him. Ronnie admitted his guilt and parked the car. At the gate chatting with a couple of the activists was a dark-haired young woman in a red-and-green pantsuit. Elisabeth Earle, the mother of the DA’s grandchildren, has enormous eyes and a dazzling smile. An elected judge on the Travis County Court at Law, she is thought to have a bright political future. There was a whirl of hugs and handshakes, then we followed the prosecutor up the walk to the house.

“That’s his daughter?” said John.

Following the reception, we headed back to the courthouse, and our gazes fell on the state cemetery. John Connally, Ralph Yarborough, Barbara Jordan, Bob Bullock, and other giants of Texas politics lie there. “Do you get to be buried in the state cemetery?” I asked Ronnie.

“Ah, I want to be cremated,” Ronnie replied. “I’ve made so many people mad in this town. There’d be a line of ’em wanting to piss on my grave.”

EVEN RONNIE’S political enemies call him by his first name. Elected district attorney in 1976, he can only be understood as a creature of Austin. At 62 he is an able politician with a gift for plainly worded moralizing and well-chosen wisecracks. Republicans have given up trying to vote him out of office. But even political allies deride him as “Ronnie Woo Woo” because of his bent for unconventional programs and philosophical pronouncements. Many years ago, after his second capital punishment conviction, he rebuked a friend of the trial’s rape and murder victim’s who tried to give him a bottle of whiskey: “This is not a celebratory event.” He never again personally prosecuted a capital punishment case, though he has eagerly sent his prosecutors after the execution of some horrific killers. In 2003 Time magazine published a glowing story that hailed him as a voice of reason in the issue of capital punishment, but it noted that he’d made plenty of glaring mistakes as a prosecutor. Three years earlier Ronnie was devastated when DNA evidence exonerated three men that his office and Austin juries had sent to prison; he ordered reviews of all convictions in Travis County in which DNA evidence still existed.

He is primarily an administrator who thrives on meetings with people who share his passion for victims’ rights, substance abuse treatment programs, and alternative law-enforcement concepts with names like “community justice” and “reentry.” “Our incarceration policies are a threat to democracy,” he said in one speech. “They create in our midst a virtual separate nation of the disenfranchised, with few prospects, whose children are probably doomed to follow in their footsteps. We can take away their freedom for periods of time, and they will get over it, but when we take away their hope, we take away our safety.”

Whatever his gifts and eccentricities, Ronnie would be little known outside Austin if not for his Travis County jurisdiction (which covers most activities of the state government) and the Public Integrity Unit, a small staff of prosecutors he founded in 1978 to specialize in cases of official misconduct in state government. But the law that has vaulted him to national prominence was enacted in 1905 by populists and progressives who feared the power of labor unions and corporations. The statute provides that only individuals can contribute to campaigns in Texas (unlike federal law, which has added to the confusion over the indictments). Following the Republican sweep in 2002, Earle read boasts in the press by a prominent GOP fund-raiser and business lobbyist that donations and other campaign help from his group “blew the doors off” the election; the prosecutor learned that those contributions, and also those of TRMPAC, had come from corporate donors, and a two-year investigation began. As things now stand, Tom DeLay’s top political aide, Jim Ellis, is charged with money laundering, which carries a potential prison term of 5 to 99 years or life. TRMPAC executive director John Colyandro is charged with money laundering and accepting corporate contributions; Warren RoBold, a fund-raiser for DeLay in Washington, is also accused of making and accepting corporate contributions. The latter offense carries a maximum punishment of 2 to 10 years. Indicted for making contributions that totaled more than $320,000 were Sears, Roebuck & Company, Westar Energy, Bacardi USA, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, and four other corporations. If convicted, the companies could be fined up to $20,000 or assessed double damages.

The indicted parties’ lawyers contend that the contributions were legal because they financed administrative expenses, but TRMPAC’s own IRS return described more than a million dollars in expenditures as “campaign expenses” and “activities related to support of Republicans for legislature and statewide offices.” Craddick’s possible exposure in the case centers on a law that prohibits outside interests from using money to try to influence the selection of the Speaker and Craddick’s delivery of $152,000 in corporate donations to selected House candidates in 2002. DeLay has claimed that he only lent his name to the fund-raising, yet Ellis reported to the majority leader throughout the push for redistricting. “Corporate checks are acceptable,” read the invitation to a Houston Petroleum Club event where DeLay was the guest speaker. In May 2001 he asked Enron chairman Ken Lay for $100,000 “in combination of corporate and personal contributions from Enron executives” and indicated that some of it would be spent on “the redistricting effort in Texas.” At best, the Republicans caught up in the prosecution were extraordinarily careless.

Last February, at a Washington press briefing, DeLay lashed out: “The district attorney has a history of being partisan and vindictive. He did it to Kay Bailey Hutchison and lost that case. He’s done it to other people so that he can get press, but he doesn’t follow through and file charges. This is so typical.” Ronnie replied, “Being called vindictive and partisan by Tom DeLay is like being called ugly by a frog. My job is to prosecute felonies. Texas law makes it a felony for corporations and labor unions to contribute to campaigns.”

DeLay has frequently maintained that he won’t be charged, but the majority leader’s backers have raised more than $932,000 for his defense fund. Following last fall’s elections, the House Republican Caucus reversed a longstanding rule that would have required DeLay to step down from his leadership position if indicted. In a measure of the heat that the Texas prosecution has brought on the GOP, the caucus reversed itself again in January, saying that the majority leader wanted to defuse the issue and reinstate the old rule. Republican congressman Henry Bonilla, of San Antonio, said they acted because Ronnie is a “partisan crackpot,” and Fox News Channel analysts have raised a hostile chorus, calling him “a sort of renegade prosecutor . . . intensely partisan . . . a rotten prosecutor.” Ronnie shrugged it off to Newsweek: “This investigation is a little like clowns coming out of a Volkswagen in the circus. There’s always another clown coming out.”

Should he fail, the prosecution targeting some of the biggest names in the Texas GOP could turn out to be Ronnie’s worst mistake. But Terry Keel, a Republican legislator from Austin, cautions that the GOP advantage is not absolute. “After the governor,” Keel says, “the Travis County district attorney may well be the most powerful official in the state.” Beaten to a pulp for years, Texas Democrats have read the headlines and discovered a champion. Now Ronnie is being boosted as the most credible candidate the Democrats could field for governor in 2006.

ON ANOTHER VISIT with Ronnie, we talked about Birdville, though he informed me that I mispronounced the name of his hometown. “We called it ‘Bird-vull,’” he said, like his mouth was full of oats. “Call it ‘Bird- ville’ and you’d get your ass whipped.” He was born and grew up on a cattle ranch that his great-grandfather founded in 1850, when the prairie and post oak groves north of Fort Worth were the far reach of frontier settlement. Ronnie’s dad kept the ranch going by working in town at a General Dynamics plant. “Like a lot of people,” he said, “I always had a bunch of aunts and uncles around, and they were important people in our lives. If you got too far out of line, there was an old uncle or aunt who grabbed you by the collar and set you straight.”

Ronnie’s nose cartilage was rearranged in sparring bouts with football teammates that were orchestrated by his coaches, and his fingers are gnarled from playing tackle and linebacker; his right ring finger wags loosely on his hand. He told me he played his last game for the Birdville Buffaloes—against storied rival Wichita Falls—with a broken ankle: “I went to that game on crutches and came home on crutches. They beat us fifty to nothing.”

At the University of Texas, Ronnie lived in a dorm and made a name for himself as an intramural football player. He wrote for the Daily Texan and was sent to the Governor’s Mansion the night of the 1962 Democratic primary; the incumbent Price Daniel was losing his reelection bid that night to John Connally, but to Ronnie’s amazement, the governor gave him a cup of coffee and talked to him as though he were a grown-up. He went on to the UT law school, where he wrote a paper on civil rights and violence that won him a job in Governor Connally’s office. Earlier, he had married a young woman from Fort Worth named Barbara Leach; they had their first child, Elisabeth, in 1968, and two years later a son, Jason. Ronnie next worked as a municipal court judge in Austin. It was a time when anti-war marches and riots and tear gas and marijuana were dividing the community. “He helped reform what had been a lousy system,” said David Richards, a labor and civil rights lawyer who, with his wife, former governor Ann Richards, and children, settled in Austin in 1969. “He would hold examining trials for people busted with small amounts of pot and would actually suppress evidence that was improperly seized.” Ronnie ran for and won a seat in the Legislature in 1973. Richards was less enthralled by his performance in the House, writing him off as a backbench moderate conservative. He didn’t expect their paths to cross again in another courtroom venue.

During Ronnie’s time in the House, his first marriage ended, and he married a bright young former aide named Twila Hugley. In 1976 the Travis County DA decided not to seek another term, and Ronnie jumped in the race just before the filing deadline. “I said at the press conference, ‘I’ve got a virgin mind and a keen sense of justice.’ Probably wouldn’t be the best slogan to run on now,” he said. Ronnie was hardly the favorite, but he won without a runoff. In addition to the usual DA duties, he has prosecuted fifteen public officials in 28 years; twelve of them have been Democrats. He has won convictions or guilty pleas from a state treasurer, a Supreme Court justice, and a Speaker of the House. But there have been two major embarrassments, and the first involved a firebrand liberal.

In 1983 Democratic attorney general Jim Mattox was suing Mobil, accusing the energy giant of cutting the state out of oil and gas royalties. Mobil hired Fulbright & Jaworski, whose attorneys played just as rough as Mattox. In retaliation, he allegedly threatened to cut the Houston megafirm out of bond business with the state. Ronnie and his staff believed that such a threat would constitute a crime, and they launched an investigation. Mattox had hired Richards to serve as first assistant. Richards had admired Ronnie when he was a municipal court judge, but he was offended by the pursuit of Mattox and furious about his own treatment by the DA and the grand jury: “I got a subpoena that said, ‘You will be here on this date at this hour,’ and they let me know right off this was not going to be gentle. I was asked if I remembered ever being asked to retrieve a list of this law firm’s bond business from our bond division. I said, ‘No, I don’t recall that,’ which was the truth; I had so damn much on my mind. Later, in the course of my testimony, that came back to me, and on reflection I told them I may well have picked up such a list. At some point soon thereafter, I was asked if I was aware of any lawyer employed by the attorney general’s office committing a felony. We had some two hundred lawyers, and some of them I knew to be pot smokers. I told them I would take the Fifth on that one. Then Ronnie himself, as I recall, read me a section in the Canon of Ethics that provides that a lawyer who knows of a bar member committing a crime must report it or have his own law license placed in jeopardy. I told them at that point I was not answering any more questions.”

The grand jury indicted Mattox on an obscure felony called commercial bribery, but Austin defense attorney Roy Minton shredded Earle’s case. The jury never understood the charge, and they acquitted Mattox. An Austin trial lawyer who generally admires the work and purpose of the Public Integrity Unit told me, “I looked closely at that trial and the statutes. There was another charge that fit what Mattox was accused of doing. But it was a misdemeanor, and Ronnie wanted a felony. He overreached.”

IN 1993 ANN RICHARDS was governor, Bill Clinton had just been elected president, and Lloyd Bentsen was leaving his U.S. Senate seat in Texas to join Clinton’s Cabinet. Richards’ stunning inability to persuade former San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros, Comptroller John Sharp, or other Democrats of that stature to accept the Senate appointment foreshadowed the party’s downfall and led to Ronnie’s next debacle. At their home in western Travis County, Twila Earle was reading the paper about the impasse one morning and told Ronnie that he was as qualified and as formidable a candidate as any of those being considered.

“By the time I got out of the shower,” Ronnie told me, “I was feeling positively senatorial.” He called in his chips and made a run for it. Recollections vary on how close he came to being appointed to the Senate; Richards evaded the question when I asked her, making a joke about old age and failing memory. But for a few days in 1993 there was a buzz about Ronnie going to the Senate. Instead, Richards appointed conservative Democrat Bob Krueger, who proved a sitting duck for a GOP up-and-comer like state treasurer Kay Bailey Hutchison.

That same year, after hearing evidence from Ronnie and the Public Integrity Unit, a grand jury indicted Hutchison on allegations of using state employees for personal and campaign tasks and then destroying state files that documented the abuse. Hutchison was outraged by the indictments, as were two political advisers named Karl Rove and Karen Hughes. In seeking the Senate appointment from Richards, Ronnie had left himself open for an effective counterspin: The guy didn’t get to be the senator, so he went after Hutchison in a fit of jealousy and spite.

The newly elected senator’s team was led by Texas’s hottest defense lawyer, Dick DeGuerin. Ronnie assigned his first assistant to argue the case, but he broke his customary rule and went to court himself. John Onion, a respected judge, voiced doubts during pretrial hearings about the admissibility of evidence the prosecution had built its case on. To the astonishment of courtroom observers, Ronnie abruptly announced that the state was not going to go forward with its prosecution. Thunderstruck, Onion barked some exasperated remarks and declined to let the matter go with the charges merely being dropped—he ordered the jury to acquit her.

Ronnie says that the revelations about the innocent men his office and Travis County juries had sent to prison were by far the lowest point of his career. But politically, the Hutchison fiasco is the albatross he hung around his own neck. “The greenest lawyer from Podunk knows not to do what Ronnie did,” said the lawyer who had observed the Mattox case. “You don’t go into any trial, certainly not one of that magnitude, without a plan B. The judge hadn’t said he was going to bar the evidence Ronnie’s team had accumulated; he said he was going to examine it piece by piece, and he might disallow it. What you do is play it out and see. Maybe you can bring the judge around. Develop a plan B. But an able courtroom prosecutor would never just call it down.”

Lawyers are habitual Monday-morning quarterbacks, and even Ronnie’s Democratic allies in the Travis County courthouse are not inclined to let him forget that episode. One wisecrack has it: “The bad news for Tom DeLay is that he might get indicted. The good news is that he would be prosecuted by Ronnie Earle.”

TERRY KEEL IS A VOLUBLE MAN who stalks about the Capitol in suit and boots with agile flair. One wall of his office is filled with photos of prominent Texas Republicans. Hutchison inscribed hers, “You deserve combat pay!” Keel is a moderate with a law-enforcement background and agenda and is a leader of Speaker Craddick’s team. Keel is also a defense lawyer, and he’s been working closely with Roy Minton to keep the grand jury’s hounds away from the Speaker. The greatest obstacle to Keel’s rise in GOP politics is his loyalty to Ronnie Earle.

“Ronnie was an institution in Austin when he gave me a job, in 1984,” Keel said. “I worked for him for eight and a half years, and he handed me plum assignments. It was a great opportunity. In 1992 I told him I wanted to run for sheriff as a Republican. He said, ‘Terry, running for sheriff in Travis County as a Republican is going to be like swimming up Niagara Falls.’ But he gave me a leave to do it, and he said that if I lost, he wanted me to come back to the DA’s office. That meant a lot to me.

“But I disagree strongly with the way he’s handled these cases. I can’t see how any crime has been committed. Ronnie’s stance in all this has not been constructive. If we have problems with campaign finance, then he needs to come to the table and work with the Legislature. He’s not going to get anything but resentment from holding a gun to the leadership’s head.”

There again was that metaphor of power.

“Republicans are really angry about this,” Keel went on. “They see an unscrupulous DA abusing his office to pick on Republicans. I can tell you that Ronnie Earle would never prosecute someone he believed was innocent. He sees his role as reweaving the fabric of society. He sees his role as prosecutor like that of the proverbial Dutch uncle. He really believes all that. But sometimes he gets bad advice, such as in the Kay Bailey Hutchison case. His enthusiasms get him in serious trouble.” Keel nodded at the photograph of the senator on his wall. “This is going to end up just like the Hutchison debacle.”

I asked Keel if the Republican majority was going to try to take vengeance on Ronnie. He stretched his mouth and said that would be futile: “Let’s say they take away the financing of the Public Integrity Unit. He had eighty-five lawyers on his staff; now he’ll have seventy-five. It would require a constitutional amendment to take away his powers as a district attorney, and putting that on the ballot would require a two-thirds-majority vote in the House and the Senate. Do Republicans think Democrats are going to go along with that?”

RONNIE’S RHETORIC about fascism commenced around 2000. In a paper, he wrote that both the criminal justice community and politicians err in seeing crime as a problem that can be solved only by government: “Such a perspective serves to exacerbate public fear, which enshrouds itself in the powerlessness of fascism.” In 2002 he read a quote from history in a Molly Ivins column. The quote was from Benito Mussolini and read “Fascism should more properly be called corporatism, since it is the merger of the state and corporate power.”

In the context of the ongoing prosecution, Ronnie sought to clarify his drift: “I’m not saying these cases constitute fascism. I am saying this is how the founder of fascism defined the term. Those laws exist because people recognized the danger of concentrated power.” After the House Republican Caucus changed the rule in order to allow DeLay to continue as majority leader if indicted, Ronnie wrote a controversial op-ed column for the New York Times. “There is no limit to what you can do if you have the power to change the rules,” he wrote. It was a short essay, just 350 words. Ronnie used the word “moral” seven times.

At the end of December, another defendant flipped. The prosecutors agreed to drop charges against Sears. The Chicago-based retailer promised to cooperate in “the prosecution and investigation of any other person for any offense related to the contribution made by the defendant.” The agreement maintained that Sears had been misled by a fund-raiser, a reference to DeLay’s Washington associate Warren RoBold. When RoBold was indicted, his lawyer remarked that his client was devastated by the indictments and that his consulting business was in ruin. Meanwhile, the majority leader appeared to distance himself from the defendants; noting that he had not been questioned, nor had any of his records been subpoenaed, he said, “This is not about Tom DeLay.” That’s the one thing he and Ronnie Earle will agree on. “This is not about Tom DeLay,” Ronnie insisted. “There will always be another Tom DeLay. They can always find somebody to do what he does. The issue here is, Are we going to be the United States of America Inc.? Or are we going to have a government of, by, and for the people?”

Spoken like the politician he is. “So are you going to run for governor?” I asked.

“I was going to retire in 2004,” he said. “I talked to a couple of persons who would have been strong candidates and tried to get them to run for DA. I was going to use my retirement as an occasion to travel the state and talk about the things I believe in. And I thought I might run for governor. I thought it would be fun, whether I won or not. But I saw these investigations and cases developing and thought it was important to see them through. I’ll be sixty-six when I finish this term. In the meantime, if I were to announce that I’m a candidate for another office, that would automatically be my resignation. Governor Perry would then appoint someone of his choosing and philosophy to be Travis County DA. So to answer your question, it’s a political impossibility. The cards aren’t lined up right, even if I wanted them to be. All the rhetoric that I’m doing this to run for governor or anything else—it’s bullshit.”

“But it’s a dream race,” I teased him. “The Rematch in Texas: Ronnie Earle versus Kay Bailey Hutchison.”

“Somebody’s dream,” he grunted. “My nightmare.”

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