Political stakes high as Sen. Hutchison's trial begins in Texas

February 07, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- In a criminal case saturated with politics, Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas goes on trial today in Fort Worth on felony charges of official misconduct and tampering with government records while she was Texas state treasurer.

Ms. Hutchison, the 10th U.S. senator ever indicted, has complained that she is the victim of a Democratic prosecutor who is trying to derail her bid for re-election this year.

The prosecutor, Ronnie Earle, acknowledges that he tried to get Democratic Gov. Ann Richards to appoint him to the seat when a vacancy occurred in 1991, but he rejects the allegations of political motivation.

"It's a criminal case," Mr. Earle told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "Politics is something that has been injected into it."

Political observers agree that the outcome of the trial is crucial for Ms. Hutchison, 50. A conviction could end her promising public career, while an acquittal would give her momentum for the fall election.

If convicted of all charges, she could be sentenced to 51 years in prison and fined up to $43,000.

The trial certainly will focus increased national attention on Ms. Hutchison, a political phenomenon who has been criticized for a country club image and lack of substance, although her election campaigns have been so scrappy that Texas columnist Molly Ivins calls her "saccharine and steel."

Ms. Hutchison was under investigation even before her election last year by a 2-to-1 margin. Her time in the Senate has been marred by the charges, which have remained in the headlines by virtue of a series of procedural disputes that included dismissal of the original indictments.

She was re-indicted Jan. 7 on three felony charges of misusing state employees and equipment for political purposes and then tampering with records to cover up the evidence. She pleaded innocent.

The original trial judge had to withdraw from the case because he contributed $300 to Ms. Hutchison's Democratic opponent in a special election last year. In a victory for the defense, the trial was transferred from the state capital of Austin, regarded as a hotbed of liberalism, to more conservative Fort Worth.

Recently, Republican allies of the first woman Texas has sent to the U.S. Senate were fanning claims that Governor Richards also has been involved in tampering with records. Top Richards aides have acknowledged destroying telephone logs last year that dated back more than two years, but they contend they acted to streamline files and not to cover up questionable activities.

The stakes are high for Texas Republicans, who see Ms. Hutchison as a rising star whose landslide victory over appointed Democratic Sen. Bob Krueger gave the Texas GOP two U.S. senators for the first time.

For Democrats, a conviction would greatly improve their chances of recapturing the seat long held by Lloyd M. Bentsen before he resigned to become secretary of the treasury in the Clinton administration.

An important question at the trial will be whether one or two former top Hutchison aides in the state treasurer's post who face similar records-tampering charges will testify against her.

One of them, David Criss, already has indicated that he is ready to cooperate with the prosecution. He told reporters in October: "I won't be the scapegoat any more."

Mr. Criss was paid $52,000 a year as planning director for the state Treasury Department. He quit after admitting he did political work for Ms. Hutchison on government time, and he claimed that Ms. Hutchison was lying when she denied knowledge of his actions.

Another aide, Michael Barron, former deputy treasurer under Ms. Hutchison, has been accused of three felonies, including official misconduct as well as tampering with records and official evidence. It is not known whether he will testify at her trial.

"People are waiting to see what the two aides are going to do," said Neil McCabe, a professor of criminal law at the South Texas College of Law. "If one or both of them testify against her, it could be bad. On the other hand, the governor is under attack for what appears to be the same thing. If the defense can bring in evidence of similar practices by others, it would destroy the prosecution."

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