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by William Lutz    Tue, Oct 11, 2005, 03:11 pm

Austin DA Ronnie Earle
The real question behind the indictment of Tom DeLay is not whether Ronnie Earle is playing politics. (Everyone in Austin knows Earle is a politician first and a lawyer second.) The real question is can Team Earle convict Tom DeLay?

Based on Earle's track record, I seriously doubt it.

Make no mistake about it. The stakes are high here. If Earle convicts, DeLay will have to resign in disgrace, and the Democrats will gain seats in Congress and the Texas Legislature. But if he fails, the Republicans will have all the moral authority they need to do what they wanted to do for years -- take the investigation of state government and ethics charges away from the Travis County District Attorney's Office.

Here is a preview of what is going to happen the next few weeks:

Tom DeLay has hired first class legal representation. By taking on DeLay, Earle has attracted national money and legal talent to the fray. It's one thing to indict three campaign fundraisers. It's another thing entirely to take on the Majority Leader of the United States House of Representatives.

Dick DeGuerin, DeLay's chief legal counsel, has beat Ronnie Earle before. He successfully represented U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison when Earle tried to prosecute her.

The looming question, however, is does Earle have a legal team that can go head-to-head with DeLay's attorneys.

Already, Earle's office has made what appear to be some procedural blunders. Earle indicted DeLay for conspiracy. DeLay's lawyers are now arguing the indictment is defective becuase the conspiracy statute did not apply to election code violations in 2002.

Then Earle reindicted DeLay for money laundering -- just in case. None of these indictments spells out specifically what role DeLay played in the alleged money laudering or conspracy.

Additionally, Earle waited until right before the statute of limitations ran to indict, and even had to pressure DeLay into waiving the statute for 30 days. If Earle really had a case, why wait so long?

Against Dick DeGuerin, any mistake Earle makes will be dutifully exploited.

The way to beat Ronnie Earle is to make him battle in the legal, rather than the political arena.

What do most politicians whose careers Earle ended have in common?

They cut pleas.

Here's Earle's usual M.O.: He announces an indictment or an investigation into a politician when that politician is facing re-election. The politician then caves, sometimes cuts a plea, and does not seek re-election or resigns.

What do all both politicians who beat Earle (Hutchison and former Attorney General Jim Mattox) have in common?

They aggressively denounced Earle's prosecution as a political witch hunt and demanded he show his hand in court.

In both cases, Earle folded.

DeLay is obviously following Mattox and Hutchison's game plan.

For DeLay, one of the keys to success is to get this case out of Travis County. Austin is a liberal Democratic enclave in a conservative Republican state. Judges and jurors here are sympathic to legal and moral arguments about reducing the influence of big corporations over campaigns.

Two key events helped DeGuerin win the Hutchison case -- the usual Austin judges were replaced by John Onion, a retired presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, and the venue was changed to Tarrant County (Fort Worth). If this case is tried by a non-Travis County judge outside of Austin, DeLay has a much better chance of winning.

Even if DeGuerin is stuck in Austin, the relevant appellate courts in Texas are now Republican. Any questionable procedural rulings will likely get reversed on appeal.

Earle and his staff will become a legal, as well as a political target How come The Austin American-Statesman's Laylan Copelin usually seems to find out what the grand jury does 24 hours before it happens?

The morning before the grand jury issued the first DeLay indictment Copelin not only accurately reported who did get indicted but also who didn't. Rick Perry and Hutchison have both condemned the frequent leaks from the grand jury.

Add to that allegations, which Earle denies, that he improperly entered the debate of the grand jury to encourage them to indict DeLay. The documentary being made on the Texas campaign finance prosecutions and the level of access granted to the filmmakers will also be questioned.

DeLay's attorneys will make Earle's conduct an issue, both legally and politically. The only question is whether they can prove their suspicions and whether they can make any of their charges of legal misconduct stick.

In other words, Tom DeLay won't be the only person whose actions will be placed under a legal microscope.

Ronnie Earle accomplished one of his goals -- becoming a national figure -- when he indicted Tom DeLay. If history repeats itself, however, DeLay stands a good chance of acquittal, which would likely neutralize Earle as a political force in Texas.

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