AUSTIN, Texas -- Jeez, that was quite a hissy fit Tom DeLay had, calling Ronnie Earle a rogue prosecutor, a partisan fanatic and an unabashed partisan zealot out for personal revenge.

Ronnie Earle? Our very own mild-mannered -- well, let's be honest, bland as toast, eternally unexciting, Mr. Understatement, Old Vanilla -- Ronnie Earle? If the rest of Tom DeLay's defense is as accurate as his description of Ronnie Earle, DeLay might as well have himself measured for a white jumpsuit right now.

For the one-zillionth time, of the 15 cases Ronnie Earle has brought against politicians over the years, 12 of them were against Democrats. Earle was so aggressive in going after corrupt Democrats, the Republicans never even put up a candidate against him all during the '80s. Partisan is not a word anyone can honestly use about Ronnie Earle, but that sure doesn't stop the TV blabbermouths. So many of them have bought the Republican spin that Earle is on a partisan witch-hunt, the watchdogs like Media Matters can hardly keep up.

On the other hand, I've never liked conspiracy charges. They are notoriously weak and often just an add-on when a prosecutor wants to make someone look bad going in: "... and he's been charged with six felonies!"

Conspiracy as a stand-alone charge is particularly hard to prove without evidence of other concrete acts. Was there a conspiracy to move corporate cash from DeLay's federal PAC to influence Texas legislative races? On the basis of what we have already known for months, that's a "Does a bear poop in the woods?" question. But as all watchers of "Law and Order" know, what anyone with common sense would conclude can be a long way from what can proved in a courtroom.

On the other hand, Earle has already had one spectacular failure trying to prosecute a high-profile Republican. His 1993 case against Kay Bailey Hutchison was a flame-out: The judge indicated in pre-trial hearings he had doubts about the admissibility of Earle's evidence, so Earle withdrew the charges -- no point if he couldn't present his evidence. The judge wasn't satisfied and directed the jury to acquit Hutchison. Hutchison had an unbeatable legal team -- Dick DeGuerin and Mike Tigar. For Earle, this is a case of once-stung.

Speaking of the aforementioned Dick DeGuerin, he is now defending Tom DeLay. Want to know how good DeGuerin is? One of his recent clients was Robert Durst, heir to a New York real estate fortune, who admitted killing and dismembering an unfortunate vic in Galveston. Durst was a suspect in a California killing at the time and had moved to Galveston posing as a deaf-mute woman.

Durst jumped bail on the Galveston charge and was arrested in Pennsylvania for stealing a chicken sandwich while carrying two guns and $38,000. DeGuerin got him acquitted on the murder charge on the grounds of self-defense, but they nailed him for the guns and tampering with evidence -- that would be dismembering the corpse. They let him slide on the chicken sandwich charge. I swear, I'm not making up any of this. That's how good Dick DeGuerin is.

If I were fool enough to give DeGuerin advice, it would be, "Don't let DeLay on the stand." The man just can't help himself -- he's just too mean, he always pushes it that step too far, like the cheap shot about Earle not coming to work unless there's a press conference on. (Ronnie Earle comes to work every day -- you can ask anyone at the county courthouse.)

That DeLay always takes things a step too far is apparent from his record. This is the man who pushed Bill Clinton's impeachment when everyone knew it would end with acquittal. He fixed his repeated troubles with the House ethics committee in typical fashion by going after the committee itself. His bludgeoning style earned him his nickname, "The Hammer."

Sometimes, but not that many, it is hard to tell the difference between playing political hardball and operating with no moral compass whatever. But in DeLay's case, we have a very long record, and what it is shows is that this is a man who has repeatedly crossed ethical and legal lines, and then claimed he was just playing hardball politics -- and that anyone who complained about it was just a partisan whiner. Whenever he is really threatened, DeLay plays the Jesus card and claims he is standing up "for a biblical worldview in everything I do and everywhere I am."

Back in 2003, when DeLay was involved in a sleazy legislative payoff to a big donor, his press secretary offered this defense, "It is wrong and unethical to link legislative activities to campaign contributions." It is precisely that upside-down quality about DeLay's bulletproof sense of moral rectitude that makes it so bizarre. Suddenly, it is not wrong or unethical to try to slip an unrelated amendment to help a campaign donor into the defense appropriations bill, it's wrong and unethical to raise questions about it.

To tell the truth, I don't think Tom DeLay is smart enough to keep getting away with this stuff.

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