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It would seem as though a documentary that chronicles the rise and fall of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, would at least attract a pack of Yellow Dog Democrats. Yet it’s opening day for the “The Big Buy, Tom DeLay’s Stolen Congress” � a film by Texas filmmakers Mark Birnbaum and Jim Schermbeck � and there are only seven audience members in the darkened theater. Admittedly, it’s not easy to draw a crowd to the movies on a sunny May afternoon in Dallas � particularly when it’s an art house flick. Still, I can’t imagine devout Republicans paying money to see a film that DeLay’s Houston attorney Dick DeGuerin calls “a hatchet job.” It’s more likely that the movie will be marketed as a fundraising tool for Democrats, a call to action to energize the party’s base. Only not today. Absent an audience, it is harder to gauge the dramatic intensity of the film. With DeLay and his associates Jim Ellis and John Colyandro still awaiting trial in Travis County on charges of conspiracy to launder money and money laundering � all three have pleaded not guilty � there remains a question about whether the film’s ripped-from-the-headlines storyline has received too much exposure to keep moviegoers interested. Then again, just the right mixture of context and cleverness (witness “Fahrenheit 9-11″) can give emotional pluck to fast-breaking events and possibly generate enough collective heat to make a difference. Already the film has been the source of mounting legal concern. The lead attorney for Ellis, J.D. Pauerstein, who himself makes several appearances in “The Big Buy,” says in an interview that he sent a letter to the film’s producer asking that all outtakes be preserved “just in case we want to subpoena them.” Pauerstein, a partner in San Antonio’s Loeffler Tuggey Pauerstein, explains, “We are curious to see what the players might have said that didn’t end up in the actual movie. “ In October 2005, Ellis filed a Motion to Dismiss Indictment for Outrageous Government Conduct, which is a screed against the alleged pretrial misbehavior of the movie’s protagonist, Democratic Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle. In a section entitled “Ronnie Earle in the Movies,” Ellis alleges that “[s]hockingly, during the course of his investigation, Mr. Earle invited a film crew to follow him around.” He goes on to accuse Earle of bias, “granting unprecedented access” to the filmmakers and making comments in the film that reveal his own agenda to “reform the campaign finance landscape, not simply to enforce existing law.” Earle did not return a telephone call seeking comment before presstime on June 1, but if his comments in the film depict a DA whose prosecution is motivated by his personal bias and his political agenda, as Ellis alleges in the motion, then the film may not be the “hatchet job” DeGuerin says it is. It may be worse. IT’S SHOWTIME The movie opens with grainy black-and-white shots of the Capitol building in Austin, and a police officer exiting his squad car in the empty Capitol parking lot. The camera then focuses on a trench coat-wearing DeLay as jazzy film noir music suggests that criminal activity is afoot. To understand the alleged crime, viewers must understand its alleged perpetrator and his big ambitions for changing the national political landscape. In the film’s first section titled “The Hammer,” viewers are treated to an artfully crafted vignette of DeLay during a 1994 TV interview, in which he declares that the “Republican revolution” has arrived and “we are now in charge.” As he rattles off the federal agencies he would like to see eliminated � the U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Department of Education and National Endowment for the Arts among them � DeLay’s talking head image is superimposed on the Houston skyline � in windows, on billboards, across buildings � as if he is some kind of eerily omnipresent Big Brother. “By the time we finish this poker game, there may not be a federal government left, which would suit me fine,” he says gleefully. Tracing the roots of his power, the filmmakers find two Sugar Land Republican women � local activists who knew DeLay when: when he was a fledgling Texas House member and was known as the partying “Hot Tub Tom”; when he got religion just as the tide of the religious right was rising in Sugar Land; when he accumulated power by grasping its direct relationship to money. “You are either a Tom Republican or you’re not a Republican,” one of them says. These women, captured in close-up while driving around Sugar Land, are refreshingly frank and pack more dramatic punch than say, the array of progressive pundits that the film relies on to flesh out its story. Columnist Molly Ivins and former Democratic Texas Agricultural Commissioner Jim Hightower are their usual humorous selves, but they add more color than credibility to the story. The movie does a remarkable job making the complex both simple and compelling, particularly when laying out DeLay’s master plan for his Republican takeover of the U.S. Congress, which DeLay pretty much admits to in the film. The strategy entailed gaining a GOP majority in the Texas House to ram a congressional redistricting plan through the Texas Legislature (Killer D walkout and all) and then to use the redrawn Texas map to gain at least five new Republican U.S. House seats. Nothing wrong with this raw power grab, of course, if banned corporate money allegedly hadn’t been used to get the whole thing started through DeLay’s fundraising PAC, Texans for a Republican Majority. Those familiar with this storyline will see little new in its retelling and yet through the film’s well-crafted juxtaposition of news footage, graphics, still photography and talking head interviews, the movie gains momentum. DeLay, who refused to be interviewed for the movie, comes alive in old news clips which, when put in context, tend to hoist him by his own petard. One of the more biting bits is a film clip of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff introducing DeLay to a convention of adoring Republican college students by saying, “Tom DeLay is who all of us want to be when we grow up.” The perpetual smile plastered on his face during his arraignment speaks volumes about DeLay’s contempt for the charges against him. Left unsaid, however, is what might be a possible defense: Texas campaign finance laws don’t appear to ban corporate money when spent on the administrative expenses of a fundraising PAC. EARLE’S TAKE Enter true believer Earle who has his own take on the alleged crime. “The law in Texas is clear,” he later tells viewers. “Corporate contributions are illegal and the law has been clear since 1905. “ Apparently enamored of the interior car shot, the filmmakers have Earle driving at night in shirtsleeves, as if patrolling the streets of Austin. His folksy persona and homegrown homilies create an easy intimacy with the audience, and the filmmakers waste no time establishing him as the principled protagonist � the only thing standing between DeLay and absolute power. Questions of legality aside, what hits Earle smack in his populism is the alleged conduct of DeLay and company in raising unprecedented bunches of cash for Texas House candidates from major corporations interested in currying “face time” with the majority leader. “The root of the evil of the corporate and large-moneyed interest domination of politics is money,” he tells viewers. “We can’t any longer exist as a democracy unless we come to grips with that problem, and we unite as a people and stop it. “ It’s Earle’s personal crusade to get big money out of politics that DeGuerin finds so offensive. “What [the movie] reflects is Ronnie Earle’s philosophy, which is money is the root of all evil in politics, but his philosophy is not the law,” says DeGuerin in an interview. “He prosecutes based on that philosophy rather than based on the law. “ In Earle’s defense, only someone with strong philosophical moorings would dare go up against the most powerful man in Congress. Since Earle began his investigation roughly four years ago, DeLay and his defenders have railed against Earle, claiming he is a runaway prosecutor, a crackpot DA on a partisan witch-hunt. In the movie, DeLay dismisses Earle as a rogue prosecutor who abuses the powers of his office to prosecute “all his political enemies. “ Earle certainly has the right to defend his integrity as well as the integrity of his investigation. Truth is, Earle says nothing in the film that he hasn’t told dozens of reporters, dozens of times. Before DeLay’s Sept. 28, 2005, indictment, when asked if DeLay was a target of his investigation, Earle repeatedly offered his same artful dodge: “Anyone who has committed a crime is a target,” he said. But DeGuerin says that Earle misrepresented his position, reassuring DeLay’s earlier attorneys that Earle was only looking at DeLay as a witness. “It was obvious from the film that his office was already focusing on DeLay,” DeGuerin says. “At the same time he was telling us one thing, he was telling the filmmakers another. “ But a March 7 article in The New York Times reported that the filmmakers said they received no special treatment from Earle and were given no information that wasn’t given to other reporters. They also contended that what started out several years before as a project investigating the 2002 Texas election morphed into something different after DeLay was indicted. In his October 2005 motion to dismiss, Ellis alleges that Earle’s involvement in the production compromises his investigation and should be grounds for his disqualification. The movie “would not have much of an ending if no one had been indicted,” Ellis contends. Turns out that despite the indictments, the movie still doesn’t have much of an ending. As the film races toward its conclusion, viewers watch news footage of DeLay’s forced resignation as majority leader after his indictment and news footage of DeLay’s April announcement to voluntarily resign in June from Congress. Yet the film’s treatment of DeLay’s ultimate demise though visually quick and clever is anti-climatic. So current are these events, they seem too fresh and familiar to serve the noir-ish feel of the film. The film holds no smoking gun, no jury verdict to restore harmony and balance to the universe. Lacking this kind of emotional catharsis, “The Big Buy” appeals more to the head than the heart, treating DeLay as a symptom of the toxic interplay of politics and money rather than its sole cause. Others stand ready to pick up his hammer. As the credits roll, the filmmakers let DeLay have the last word. “[Earle] also had a film crew follow him around during the grand jury process, and they put out a movie to use against me during my re-election,” DeLay tells Fox News after resigning his seat. “Fortunately, that movie is worthless right now, which makes me feel pretty good. “ Truth is, Earle may still have the last word. But hopefully and finally, it will be in a courtroom and not in front of a movie camera. Senior reporter Mark Donald’s column, “ Sidebar,” appears bimonthly in Recorder affiliate Texas Lawyer.

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