Texas GOP Hopes Senator Can Weather Felony Charges

JUST 16 weeks after winning the biggest election of her career, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) of Texas is fighting for her political life. Indicted on charges of official misconduct, tampering with governmental records, and tampering with physical evidence, she is now hoping her day in court comes soon.

On Sept. 27, a Travis County grand jury indicted Senator Hutchison and two former aides, Michael Barron and David Criss, on felony charges. The indictments were handed down after a lengthy investigation that began June 10, just five days after Hutchison won the seat in a special election to replace Lloyd Bentsen, who left the Senate to become United States Treasury secretary.

The charges allege that while she was state treasurer, Hutchison misused state employees and state equipment for fund-raising and other campaign work and then plotted to hide the crime by destroying evidence.

Hutchison, who has called the investigation ``sleazy politics,'' says the Democrats, including Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, have a political vendetta against her. Mr. Earle, who has been district attorney in the county for 17 years, has indicted three other high-profile Texas politicians in the last 11 years. All were Democrats.

Hutchison, only the 10th sitting US senator to be indicted, hopes a trial comes quickly. ``I think a speedy trial is the right thing,'' Hutchison said in a televised interview shortly after the indictments were handed down.

Sam Kinch, who has covered Texas politics for three decades and is the editor of the political newsletter Texas Weekly, says: ``If she has an early trial and wins, she will be vindicated by primary time in March.'' If Hutchison loses, Texas GOP leaders say she could still win because the charges do not involve bribery or other more serious charges.

The indictment of Hutchison comes amid a mudslinging battle royal in Texas politics. Gov. Ann Richards, a Democrat, was testifying in an Austin courtroom last week because of a lawsuit brought against her and other Democratic leaders by three former employees of the Texas Department of Commerce. The employees, who are suing for more than $2 million in back pay and damages, are Republicans. The three allege that they were unfairly dismissed after Governor Richards was elected. Richards will run for reelection next year against major-league baseball executive George Bush, the Republican son of President Bush.

The Republican Party is making significant gains in this historically Democratic state. Hutchison's landslide victory July 5 over Bob Krueger, who was appointed to fill the Senate seat by Richards, was a particularly bitter defeat for Texas Democrats, who have lost other key races in recent years. Hutchison and Sen. Phil Gramm are the first GOP pair from Texas in the US Senate since Reconstruction.

GOP leaders have been counting on Hutchison to retain her Senate seat while Senator Gramm runs for the presidency. An unannounced candidate, Gramm has made no secret of his White House ambitions. And some political observers believe that the charges against Hutchison may work against the Democrats during the next election. As the case develops, Republicans can subpoena and scrutinize the records of leading Texas Democrats, including Richards and Land Commissioner Garry Mauro. Both Richards and Mr. Mauro campaigned heavily last fall for President Clinton.

However, the five charges against Hutchison - for felonies and a class A misdemeanor - carry a total of up to 61 years in prison and $43,000 in fines and may tarnish her rising star in the GOP.

It is not known when Hutchison will appear in court to be fingerprinted and formally charged. Senate rules allow senators to retain their seats while under indictment. However, if Hutchison is convicted, the Senate Ethics Committee could recommend censure or expulsion.

Hutchison, who must stand for reelection March 8, is the first female Republican ever elected to statewide office in Texas. At present, she has only one announced opponent for her place in the Senate. Richard Fischer, a Dallas millionaire businessman and former adviser to Ross Perot, has announced his intent to run in the Democratic primary next year.

The last US senator convicted while in office was Sen. Harrison Williams Jr. (D) of New Jersey, who was convicted of conspiracy and bribery charges in 1981. Sen. David Durenberger (R) of Minnesota will go on trial early next year for allegedly conspiring to file fraudulent travel claims for Senate reimbursement.

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