HOUSTON — In the 1980s, Jim Mattox was the attorney general of Texas and one of the most powerful figures in the state -- mentioned as a future governor and, maybe, more. Today, he is a real estate lawyer.
A turning point came in 1983, when the district attorney in Austin, Ronnie Earle, indicted Mattox on bribery charges. He was acquitted, but the damage was done. Mattox had spent $300,000 on attorneys. His political career began to peter out.
"Ronnie Earle had visions of grandeur," said Mattox, now 62. "He was using it as a stepping stone."
Two decades later, Earle is going after another powerful Texas politician, and the defense is no different. When he indicted U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay on Wednesday, the Texas Republican lashed out at Earle, calling him an "unabashed partisan zealot."
Just one hitch: Earle may be a Democrat, but, he said, so were 12 of the 15 politicians he has indicted over the years, including Mattox. Even Mattox said Wednesday that Earle long had targeted people on both sides of the political aisle, roiling the halls of power in Austin -- and now Washington -- at every turn.
"He had a very negative impact on my life," Mattox said. But in DeLay's case, he added, "I think Earle is carrying out his responsibility."
Fred Lewis, director of Campaigns for People, an Austin group that works to reduce the influence of money on government, called the politics-as-usual defense the "standard response" here to an Earle indictment.
"Every single person he has indicted, Democrat or Republican, has claimed politics," Lewis said. "That's what people don't understand. I think Ronnie Earle has just done his job. The people that are criticizing the indictments don't know one thing about Texas law or the facts. And frankly, they need to be quiet and let the criminal justice process work."
Republicans are hardly convinced of that, and they accused Earle on Wednesday of wasting tax dollars with a "politically motivated and manufactured indictment" -- and of sapping public resources at a time when they are needed to recover from Hurricane Rita.
"He is a small man with a big grudge," said Republican Party of Texas Chairwoman Tina Benkiser. "And that is a dangerous combination. He's abusing the very system he was elected to protect."
Earle has taken pains to project a squeaky-clean image, at one point even accusing himself of a misdemeanor when he discovered that his campaign finance reports had been filed late. Still, he has not always remained above the political fray.
Earle recently said that being called partisan by DeLay was akin to "being called ugly by a frog." At a Democratic fundraiser in May, he called DeLay a "bully." And he has said that ambition and outrage over what he sees as an illegal fundraising scheme devised by DeLay and his associates prompted him to postpone his retirement to prosecute the case.
Raised on a ranch in Birdville, Texas -- which had a population of 107 when he was born and hasn't grown much since -- Earle worked as a lifeguard as a youth, participated in student government and earned the rank of Eagle Scout.
He was elected to the Texas House in 1972 and became the Travis County district attorney in 1977. Under Texas law, that office also controls the public integrity unit responsible for prosecuting alleged misconduct by politicians, regardless of where they live in the state.
GOP activists have sought to take that power away from Earle, but haven't succeeded.
Within a year of taking office, Earle indicted former Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Yarbrough on perjury charges; Yarbrough fled to Grenada, and eventually served time in a state penitentiary. Earle also went after a state treasurer, state House speaker and several Democratic legislators, winning convictions or plea bargains in each of those cases.
George Shipley -- a political operative who worked for the late Bob Bullock, a Democrat and one of the most powerful figures in modern Texas politics -- said Wednesday that over the years Earle had taken plenty of heat from Democrats in Austin.
Earle went after Bullock -- who was last elected as George W. Bush's lieutenant governor -- on several occasions, although he never brought an indictment. Bullock routinely described Earle in terms that are "not printable in a family newspaper," Shipley said.
Still, Shipley said, Earle is not prone to conducting witch hunts; he recalled occasions when Earle sent GOP legislators letters reminding them that it was poor form to step off of state-owned airplanes wearing golf cleats and carrying their clubs.
"Ronnie is a maverick," Shipley said. "The argument that he is a hard-charging partisan with a hidden agenda is not supported by the facts."
One time, however, Earle brought now-U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican, to trial on ethics charges. He dropped the case at the last minute -- something GOP activists seized upon as proof that he was trying to humiliate Hutchison because of her party affiliation.
"Nobody would ever accuse Ronnie of being nonpartisan," said Alan Sager, a professor at the University of Texas in Austin and the chairman of the Travis County Republican Party.
Today, Sager said, Earle is merely going after DeLay in an effort to hurt the Republican Party and President Bush. And while DeLay's immediate response was to attack the prosecutor Wednesday, Sager said, the congressman would have a more definitive defense at trial: the 1st Amendment.
"This is a case of free speech," he said. "We're not talking about people who committed crimes. We're talking about people who were involved in political campaigns and were spending money.
"Ronnie Earle wants to criminalize political activity."