Ronnie Earle is the local district attorney in Austin, Texas. During his 28 years in office, he's prosecuted his share of robberies, rapes and murders.
But what he cares about most is rooting out public corruption. Over the years, he's indicted more than a dozen politicians, including a U.S. senator, the state's attorney general, and a sitting Texas Supreme Court justice.
But none of his cases ever created much of a stir outside of the Lone Star State until recently, when he launched a criminal investigation that seems to be honing in on one of the most powerful politicians in the country -- Congressman Tom DeLay of Texas, the Republican House Majority Leader. Correspondent Lesley Stahl reports.
Known as "The Hammer" among his colleagues, Rep. DeLay recently came out swinging after Ronnie Earle indicted three of his associates.
"The facts are, I have not been indicted in Austin, Texas, and the facts are, the indictments that have been brought by this partisan D.A. in Austin, Texas, against three of my associates, are frivolous," said DeLay.
DeLay accuses Earle, a Democrat, of playing politics. But Earle says politics has nothing to do with this case. "This is not about Democrats and Republicans," says Earle. "This is about cops and robbers. This is about the abuse of power."
What does Earle have to say about being called "vindictive and partisan" by DeLay?
"Being called vindictive and partisan by Tom DeLay is like being called ugly by a frog," says Earle. "It sort of comes with the territory. But that's my job. That's what I'm supposed to do."
This case involves a political action committee called "Texans for a Republican Majority" or TRMPAC, chaired by Tom DeLay and run by some of his closest associates. Earle contends that TRMPAC raised money illegally from corporations during the 2002 state elections in Texas.
"It's an ancient equation: money for power, power for money," says Earle.
So far, Earle has obtained indictments against eight corporations, in addition to the three people close to DeLay. The charges include multiple counts of money laundering and the illegal use of corporate contributions.
What about DeLay? Is Earle looking at him?
"We're following the truth. And wherever that leads, that's where we'll go," says Earle.
The corporate fundraising, says Earle, was done to elect Republicans to the Texas legislature so they could redistrict the state and ensure that more Republicans would be elected to the house in Washington.
DeLay turned down many requests by 60 Minutes for an interview, so Stahl caught up with him at a news conference in Washington to ask him about the case. DeLay wouldn't answer Stahl's questions, but he has said in the past that he doesn't expect to be indicted – and yet he has hired a team of lawyers while his legal defense fund has reached a million dollars.
"The fact is he is worried. Republicans in the house are worried that this could be a huge flameout for Tom DeLay," says Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and a recent critic of Tom DeLay.
Ornstein says the Republicans are worried because DeLay has already been admonished by the House Ethics Committee for questionable conduct.
"Tom DeLay was rebuked on three separate matters by the House Ethics Committee in the last Congress, an extraordinary slap at the leader," says Ornstein. "But they left open pending a fourth issue, which was the Ronnie Earle case in Texas. So what did the House Republicans do? They fire the chairman of the Ethics Committee. They removed two members."
And two of the replacements had contributed to DeLay's legal defense fund.
Adds Ornstein: "They want a group of people on the House Ethics Committee who are going to go to extraordinary lengths to keep Tom DeLay from going down or being embarrassed yet again, which embarrasses them all, they believe, with what's been going on down in Texas."
What's been going on down in Texas revolves around a state law that is 102 years old. It bans the use of corporate money in state campaigns. Craig McDonald, who runs a liberal political watchdog group in Austin, discovered $600,000 in corporate contributions to DeLay's PAC in public records filed with the IRS.
"We had to date never seen such cheating, such an influx of corporate money into our state elections process," says McDonald.
But lawyers for TRMPAC say the law is murky because it allows corporate money to be spent in campaigns for "administrative" functions.
"Well, that's the spin they're using," says McDonald.
"What do you mean by that," asks Stahl. "They say the money went to administrative functions. They say the law says they can use the money for that reason. What's wrong? Where's the hole in that?"
"No, the law is very clear in Texas on how you can use corporate funds: paying your rent, paying your telephone bills, paying your accountant," says McDonald. "Very, very specific limited administrative expenses."
Does he know how they spent that money? "It's in black and white in the IRS reports," says McDonald. "They spent it for political activities, prohibited activities under the Texas law."
He says TRMPAC was anything but secretive about what it was up to. He read from a TRMPAC brochure that went out to corporate executives.
"Rather than just paying for overhead, which is all that is allowable under Texas law, overhead, 'Your support will fund a series of productive and innovative activities,'" says McDonald. "And they go on to list four activities, all of which are really defined as political activities under Texas laws."
And these activities, he says, are "spelled out."
"Candidate evaluation recruitment. Message development and communication," says McDonald. "These activities cannot be paid for with corporate dollars under Texas law."
But that very point is being challenged.
DeLay's fellow Texan, Republican Rep. John Carter, says whether the law was broken depends on what your definition of "administrative" is.
"No court has actually defined clearly what administrative purposes is," says Carter.
60 Minutes showed him TRMPAC's brochure with the statement of how the corporate funds would be spent.
"Active candidate evaluation and recruitment. Message development. Market research and issue development," says Stahl. "I mean, how is that administrative?"
"Active candidate evaluation and recruitment, that's a party of administrative procedure," says Carter. "That's a party function."
"I thought administration was the running of the office. The Xerox machine. Paying bills," says Stahl.
"This is what the court has to rule on," says Carter. "If they find all these things are administrative, there'll be no convictions in this case."
Would this be considered a technicality – a way to revolve around a definition of administrative?
"We're not talking about Mother Teresa here who gets caught for turning right on a red light in a state that doesn't allow such a thing," says Ornstein. "The history of Tom DeLay in Congress is that he's pushed every envelope. It is often the case that powerful people get their comeuppance because of something that a lot of people would see as a technicality."
Case in point is what happened to another Texan, Democrat Jim Wright, who was forced to resign as Speaker of the House and from Congress in 1989.
"When you look back at what brought down the most powerful member of Congress, Jim Wright, which was publishing a book, and having a bunch of copies go on bulk sales to people who then gave him royalties through some kind of subterranean process, wasn't even a violation of a law or a specific ethics rule," says Ornstein. "It was just the general sense that this is not how a member of Congress behaves. It was murkier than what we have now."
Does he think that the Republicans are taking better steps to make sure that what happened to Wright won't happen here?
"Do you think this is in the back of the Republicans' minds now that it happened to Jim Wright, 'Oh oh, we better take steps to make sure that doesn't happen here,'" asks Stahl.
"It's not in the backs of their minds about Jim Wright, it's in the front of their minds," says Ornstein. "They see the parallel here and they want to be sure this doesn't happen."
Meanwhile in Texas, three of the indicted companies have agreed to cooperate with the investigation, and lawyers following the case say the prosecutor may try and "flip" the two DeLay associates indicted in the case -- offering Jim Ellis and TRMPAC Executive Director John Colliandro a deal in exchange for evidence against DeLay.
"It feels as though you're circling Tom DeLay, just making a big circle right around him, with him in the bull's eye," Stahl says to Earle.
"Well, this is an ongoing investigation, and I really can't comment in any more detail about any place that the investigation might go," says Earle.
"A good district attorney can indict a ham sandwich if he wants to, and Mr. Earle understands that," says Carter. "The accusations harm as much as the convictions. … Because all you have right now is accusations, and we're having an interview on a national television show about accusations. So they're obviously harmful or it wouldn't be news."
Is he saying that Earle is deliberately doing this? "I don't know whether he's doing – if he does it or not. I just know," says Carter. "I just know that you've seen a history that seems that way."
Carter is alluding to the charge made by DeLay and other Republicans that Earle's motives are partisan, and he points to Earle's unsuccessful attempt to prosecute Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison on ethics charges.
Hutchinson said: "I know he prosecutes for political purposes. He did it to me."
"I'm not surprised that she would say that," says Earle. "That's pretty much what other politicians that I've prosecuted have said."
But does he believe that example casts a shadow over this case, and these indictments?
"That was one case. There have been somewhere around 15 cases involving elected officials, that my office has prosecuted," says Earle. "Of the 15, 12 were Democrats; three were Republican. But now, he's dealing with one of the most powerful politicians in the country."
DeLay has said that "Ronnie Earle is trying to criminalize politics. That's a charge that Stahl tried to ask the congressman about at a news conference in Washington that he had called to talk about something else, children left stranded by the tsunami.
Stahl: Can I ask you about Ronnie Earle? What is your real charge here? You're, you seem to be suggesting he's doing a whole investigation just to get Republicans. Is that really what your charge is?
DeLay: I know CBS likes to create news. But we're here to talk about children…
DeLay ignored Stahl's question, and Rep. Mark Foley of Florida stepped in: "We'll ask those questions and answer them later. … We're not talking about Mr. DeLay today."
Stahl said: "Well, we are. I'd like to know when you're going to answer the questions?"
"Thank you very much," said DeLay. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself."
Earle has been attacked as a self-promoter and a "crackpot," hard sells in Texas, where he has a reputation as a "Mr. Clean."
"I'm just doing my job," says Earle. "The law says that it's a felony for corporations to contribute money to political campaigns. My job is to prosecute felonies."
"And now, some people might say, 'You know, all these Republicans did was try to get elected. And, you know, politics ain't bean bag, as we've heard many times. They just played hard,'" says Stahl.
"You bet. I think that's great," says Earle. "The problem here is we believe that the law was broken in the process. That's the point. The law was broken."
EDITOR'S NOTE: On Nov. 22, 2004, CBSNews.com reported that, based on evidence that was available at that time, it was unlikely that Tom DeLay would be indicted.