Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The DA behind DeLay indictment

Just How Clean is Ronnie Earle?

Travis County DA Ronnie Earle has been gunning for Tom DeLay for years, trying to tie the long-time GOP House leader to political corruption -- and coming up empty, at least so far. However, NRO's Byron York notes that Earle has found others in violation of the law along the way, notably large corporations who have donated to DeLay campaign, forbidden by Texas law. Does he prosecute the corporations? Apparently only if they don't comply with the Ronnie Earle Clemency Program, which consists of demands for huge cash contributions to his own pet causes:
  • Ronnie Earle, the Texas prosecutor who has indicted associates of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay in an ongoing campaign-finance investigation, dropped felony charges against several corporations indicted in the probe in return for the corporations' agreement to make five- and six-figure contributions to one of Earle's pet causes.
  • A grand jury in Travis County, Texas, last September indicted eight corporations in connection with the DeLay investigation. All were charged with making illegal contributions (Texas law forbids corporate giving to political campaigns). Since then, however, Earle has agreed to dismiss charges against four of the companies — retail giant Sears, the restaurant chain Cracker Barrel, the Internet company Questerra, and the collection company Diversified Collection Services — after the companies pledged to contribute to a program designed to publicize Earle's belief that corporate involvement in politics is harmful to American democracy.
  • Some legal observers called the arrangement an unusual resolution to a criminal case, at least in Texas, where the matter is being prosecuted. "I don't think you're going to find anybody who will say it's a common practice," says Jack Strickland, a Fort Worth lawyer who serves as vice-chairman of the criminal-justice section of the Texas State Bar. Earle himself told National Review Online that he has never settled a case in a similar fashion during his years as Travis County district attorney. And allies of DeLay, who has accused Earle of conducting a politically motivated investigation, called Earle's actions "dollars for dismissals."
Earle wants to fund a program at Stanford University that engages in deliberative polling, run by a personal acquaintance of Earle's, James Fishkin. In order to do that, Earle has used the indictments he has gathered in various political corruption cases to strongarm companies into donating large sums of money to the program in exchange for Earle dropping the charges. The amount of money that Earle wanted from Sears was so high that the company initially offered Earle the chance to pound sand. Eventually, the four corporations agreed to fund the program with an understanding that the result would not simply be an anti-capitalist screed.

For most people, this would appear to be nothing less than extortion, although certainly Earle has set up this scam well enough to avoid that charge. However, Texans can certainly smell the corruption this entails. All Ronnie Earle has to do is to file charges against any corporation that donates to a non-profit that might have a political connection. From that indictment, Earle can demand a hefty "donation" to Stanford's program in return for a clean bill of health. Most large corporations won't spend the money to fight off a determined DA, especially where politics are involved, and Earle gets his money. In fact, it's reminiscent of Jesse Jackson's corporate shakedowns exposed by Kenneth Timmerman two years ago.

One other fact that will rankle Texans: Sears offered to donate to the University of Texas at first -- and Earle refused to agree to it, insisting that the money go to California's Stanford University and his friend's program instead. He later relented when he found a similar program at UT run by a Fishkin protege.

I've documented the strange career of Ronnie Earle several times here at CQ. No one can doubt that Earle may be one of the most openly partisan district attorneys in the US. This revelation calls into question not only his motivations but his ethics as well. It may be that this is all perfectly legal -- but allowing a law enforcement officer the latitude to file charges against people or entities and then negotiating payoffs to his friends to get charges dropped smells bad no matter what the law allows.

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