By Crispian Balmer
ROME (Reuters) - Virginia Raggi was heralded last year as a poster child for Italy's 5-Star Movement, her election as mayor of the capital holding out the prospect of future triumph for the group at a national level.
But her first seven months in charge of Rome have been plagued by scandals, and Raggi now faces possible trial for abuse of office and false testimony -- a public relations disaster for a party that has put honesty and legality at the heart of its identity.
Raggi, a 38-year-old lawyer with minimal political experience, denies any wrongdoing and 5-Star's leaders continue to stand by her, saying she is the victim of a witchhunt by the establishment and the media.
Her poor start in Rome has had little discernible impact on the 5-Star's standing in the surveys: it remains Italy's second party, just behind the ruling Democratic Party and comfortably ahead of other opposition forces.
However, if Raggi's legal woes escalate, it could hurt the 5-Star's chances at the ballot box amid growing speculation that elections will be held in June, nine months ahead of time.
"Rome offered the 5-Star a chance to show Italians they were ready to govern, but it has been a disaster," said Sergio Fabbrini, director of the School of Government at Rome's LUISS University. "This is damaging their credibility."
The party does also have some successes to show. A poll this month in the daily Il Sole 24 Ore made 5-Star's Chiara Appendino, who won control of Turin last year at the same time as Raggi won in Rome, Italy's favorite mayor.
Raggi, who had secured a landslide victory by promising to clean up a city laid low by years of corruption and economic decline, came in 103rd out of 104.
"We will teach them how to do politics in Rome," she told a campaign rally last summer. "They accuse us of not being experts, but it is the experts who have destroyed Rome."
But she took weeks to put her cabinet together and made poor choices, highlighting the fact that the upstart party has only a limited talent pool to call on.
Over the past six months, eight of her team have quit or been pushed out, including two budget ministers, while a former close aide, Raffaele Marra, was arrested last month on an array of corruption charges.
Raggi's initial reliance on Marra infuriated 5-Star diehards. He was not part of the movement and had worked under previous, now-discredited administrations.
Raggi's latest troubles are linked to Marra's brother, Renato, who was promoted last October from the local police department to head of tourism within city hall, gaining a 20,000-euro ($21,340) pay rise in the process.
Magistrates say the promotion constituted illegal nepotism. Raggi, however, said the decision to give him the job had been hers alone and had nothing to do with Marra.
PROSPECT OF TRIAL
During the probe, the magistrates found a Whatsapp message from Raggi to Renato Marra complaining that he had never mentioned the pay rise. "It's made things difficult for me. You should have told me," she wrote, according to a judicial source.
Magistrates are due to interrogate Raggi on Jan. 30 and she says she has nothing to hide. "Next I guess they'll be claiming that I killed someone," she quipped on Thursday.
A judicial source with knowledge of the case told Reuters the magistrates were confident they had enough evidence to push for an immediate trial. If found guilty, Raggi faces a maximum three years in jail and automatic suspension from public office.
The 5-Star, which in the past suspended some of its own members when they were officially placed under investigation, announced this month that its lawmakers would no longer be sidelined if they faced a legal investigation, but would be required to follow an "ethics code".
Critics said the rules had been drawn up specifically to shield Raggi, and party founder Beppe Grillo jumped to her defense on Friday. "I can't but be close to her at what I know is a very difficult time for her," he wrote on his blog.
To a degree, the legal battle has obscured an even bigger problem for the 5-Star: the fact that there is little sign that it has made any headway in cleaning up Rome, which is plagued by poor services, dirty streets and a woeful transport system.
"I voted for Raggi, but I regret it. She's too inexperienced," said hairdresser Ferdinando Gangemi. "I've lived here for 50 years and it's never been so run down."
(Editing by Kevin Liffey)