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Another side to DiFrancesco

Bergen Record, Monday, March 5, 2001

THE STATE'S Republican leaders might do well to take a closer look at Donald DiFrancesco before automatically anointing him as the party's candidate for governor.

Now that Mr. DiFrancesco is acting governor, we are learning a lot more about him. Maybe insiders in Trenton knew another side of him, but the public didn't.

A decade ago, Mr. DiFrancesco was involved in two failed real estate deals that caused him to accept loans or payments from people who do business with the state or who lobby the state on legislative matters.

In one instance seven years ago, Mr. DiFrancesco had an uncle and three friends lend him $575,000 to pay off a loan after a bank moved to foreclose on a building he and his brother Paul owned in Chatham. Two of the lenders who were friends of Mr. DiFrancesco were also politically active in Trenton.

One friend was Anthony Sartor, a top official of an engineering firm with millions of dollars in government contracts. Another was M. Joseph Montuoro, an investor. Both have been members of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority and were confirmed by the state Senate.

In another instance, Mr. DiFrancesco helped arrange a loan from a friend to his brother and cousin for a venture involving property they wanted to buy. When things got shaky and the lender sued Mr. DiFrancesco and his relatives for payment, he borrowed money from a law partner. Then, in 1996, when K. Hovnanian Companies, one of the biggest homebuilders in the state, became interested in the property, $225,000 of Hovnanian's downpayment was used to repay Mr. DiFrancesco's law partner.

Mr. DiFrancesco insists that nothing illegal or unethical transpired in either case, and that these revelations are part of a "smear campaign" by his opponents. A spokesman said, "The facts are clear, there was no benefit to the governor."

But if nothing else, these revelations raise questions about Mr. DiFrancesco's judgment and his awareness of what constitutes at least the appearance of a conflict. Hovnanian, for example, has major interests in legislative and regulatory matters and is a member of the New Jersey Builders Association, which lobbies Trenton constantly.

As Senate president with power over almost anything involving the state, Mr. DiFrancesco should have been more aware of the ramifications of these associations and the impression they might convey to the public.

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