Rajoy insisted he would "put his hand in the fire" for Camps - until now

PP pressured ex-Valencia chief to plead guilty in effort to save campaign

For more than two years after the Gürtel inquiry exploded, Francisco Camps always maintained his innocence. Even his political godfather, Popular Party leader Mariano Rajoy, said on numerous occasions that he would "put his hand in the fire" for him, and refused to remove him from the PP ticket in the past May 22 regional and local elections.

"I don't believe that an official would sell himself for some suits," Rajoy told EL PAÍS last October. "And I know Mr Camps and he is a person of honor."

But on Tuesday, things appeared to have changed. Federico Trillo, the PP judicial advisor, went down to Valencia ? at Rajoy's behest ? to suggest that Camps avoid going to trial and plead guilty to charges of accepting 14,000 euros in suits and dress accessories from businessmen connected to the so-called Gürtel network. He would pay a fine, which would allow him to remain in office.

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Valencia regional premier Francisco Camps resigns

It would have been the best option to keep the case from turning into a major campaign issue for Rajoy and the PP in the next general elections, even though party officials acknowledged that the Socialists would still use it as an electoral weapon if Camps remained in office. Rajoy even spoke to Camps by telephone to discuss seeking some alternative to going to trial, according to sources. However, they said that the worst option would have been a criminal trial right smack in the middle of what is expected to be a tough race to be the next prime minister.

Camps had already dodged one trial on the suits controversy when the Valencia High Court decided in a split decision in August 2009 to throw out the case for lack of evidence, despite testimony from the tailor who made the suits insisting that Camps never paid for them. Supported by the Socialist Party, prosecutors appealed the decision and the Supreme Court ordered the case reinstated.

Valencia High Court Judge José Flors reopened the investigation and began looking into new evidence, including tax reports and testimony that the Forever Young men's shop, where the suits were purchased, may have destroyed its billing records. On Friday, Camps and three others, including Ricardo Costa, the PP's former secretary general in Valencia, were indicted on charges of receiving Gürtel gifts from 2005 to 2008. Costa was removed from his secretary general's post in October 2009 by Camps under pressure from Rajoy. For weeks after it was revealed he was being targeted in the Gürtel inquiry, Costa refused to step down.

That same defiance reappeared on Wednesday when Costa also rejected pleading guilty to the charges in Flors' indictment until Camps pleaded out first. Camps and Costa will now face trial before the Valencia High Court. Their codefendants Víctor Campos, the former deputy regional premier, and Rafael Betoret, the region's former tourism chief, pleaded guilty just hours before Camps stepped down.

Days before Friday's indictment, Camps acknowledged that he received the accessories in his capacity as head of the PP party and not in his elected position as regional premier. But Flors rejected that argument, saying that both jobs are "indivisible."

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