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Governor pressured by ethics concerns

Originally appeared in the Bergen Record on Wednesday, April 18, 2001
Trenton Bureau

Acting Gov. Donald T. DiFrancesco's gubernatorial campaign was thrown into turmoil Tuesday after a published report raised new questions about his personal finances and professional ethics.

While DiFrancesco denied the veracity of the report and vowed to stay in the race, several top Republicans aired concerns about the electability of the presumed GOP nominee.

"I'm determined to move forward," DiFrancesco said at a midafternoon Hackensack news conference, where he was asked if he is considering dropping out of the race. "This is all to distract everybody from the real issues in the campaign. It's just a negative attack by people who don't want me to run for office."

The published report alleged that DiFrancesco repeatedly entered into conflicts of interests and other direct ethics violations during his 16-year-tenure as township attorney in his hometown of Scotch Plains.

It is the latest revelation in a string of news stories about DiFrancesco's real estate deals that have created a growing perception among some Republicans that DiFrancesco is too compromised to wage a successful campaign.

Monmouth County Republican Chairman William F. Dowd said he was considering withdrawing the county organization's endorsement of DiFrancesco and removing his name from the party line on the ballot.

Dowd called the report "a very difficult thing to swallow. A lot of people are very, very concerned."

Others were still standing by DiFrancesco, but his support appeared to be weakening.

"Everyone is still behind him publicly, but it seems to be getting harder every day," said Warren County Republican Chairman Walter Orcutt, who has endorsed DiFrancesco in the primary.

"I think Donny has some explaining to do," added state Sen. William L. Gormley, R-Atlantic. "Are we still behind him? Yes, of course. But he's got to explain what look to be lapses in judgment."

Privately, however, Republicans said DiFrancesco was under mounting pressure from key members of the party to withdraw from the race.

"He's got to go now so we can minimize the damage and move on," said one leading Republican lawmaker. "If he doesn't, he'll drag us all down with him. A lot of people feel that's the only decent thing for him to do now."

State Republican Chairman Chuck Haytaian declined an opportunity to defend his party's front-runner. "I'm not going to have a comment on that. I don't want to get involved in that," he said.

DiFrancesco said he had no intention of quitting the race and denied any wrongdoing. He said Tuesday's report in The New York Times was planted by Democratic operatives allied with Woodbridge Mayor Jim McGreevey, the likely Democratic nominee for governor.

"It's a partisan attack -- Democrats leaking confidential information," he said. "People recognize it for what it is: a political attack at election season. It's absolutely not true."

DiFrancesco also denied that Republican leaders were quietly lining up a candidate to replace him before a 4 p.m. filing deadline today. He said he fielded a number of calls from supporters urging him not to quit.

"I'm fighting stronger than ever," he said.

But two sources from DiFrancesco's own campaign confirmed that former Rep. Bob Franks, the Berkeley Heights Republican who was narrowly defeated in last year's U.S. Senate race, was contacted by party officials early Tuesday.

According to the sources, Franks reluctantly agreed to step in if DiFrancesco withdraws by today's

"He wasn't thrilled about it, but he agreed to do it for the sake of the party -- if Donny steps aside," said one aide. "But he is not happy about the prospect of stepping into the melee of Trenton politics right now."

Franks, who has set his sights on the 2002 Senate race and incumbent Democrat Robert G. Torricelli, could not be reached for comment.

If DiFrancesco does withdraw, he would have to do so by 4 p.m. today or lose the right to have any formal say about his successor -- unless the June 5 primary is pushed back.

State law says if a primary candidate resigns or dies up to 48 days before the primary election, the candidate can use a little-known device known as the vacancy committee to transfer his nominating petition to another politician. Every candidate names his own committee.

DiFrancesco's three-man panel consists of Burlington County Republican Chairman Glenn Paulsen, Ocean County Republican Chairman George Gilmore, and Assemblyman Richard Bagger of Union County.

Gilmore, a longtime DiFrancesco loyalist, bristled at any mention of the committee.

"There was no meeting of the Committee on Vacancy because there is no vacancy," he said.

If DiFrancesco were to step down after today's deadline, the party would be left with the sole remaining primary candidate, Jersey City Mayor Brett Schundler, said Paul Loriquet, a spokesman for the Department of Law and Public Safety. DiFrancesco's name would remain on the ballot, however.

Schundler spokesman Bill Guhl said the candidate was in contact Tuesday with "a number of Republican county chairmen" who have promised to support him if DiFrancesco withdraws.

"A lot of them are saying privately that at this point Donny needs to bow out," he said. "But they can't go out on a limb and say that in public, of course."

If DiFrancesco steps down, he can use any money he has raised, both public and private dollars, to pay campaign-related expenses incurred to date.

Once those expenses are paid, however, DiFrancesco would have to return to the state any excess dollars up to $676,100, which is the amount he has received in public funding, according to Fred Herrmann, spokesman for the Election Law Enforcement Commission.

If he has more than that, he can donate the excess to another candidate, political parties, or charity, Herrmann said. Any political donation would be subject to campaign finance limits, which are $2,600 for a gubernatorial candidate, $7,200 for other candidates and $37,000 to a single political party.

So far, DiFrancesco has raised more than $2 million, in addition to the public funding, according to Charlie Smith, campaign manager.

Smith dismissed any notion that DiFrancesco would quit the race, and he denied widespread rumors that Republicans were meeting at campaign headquarters in Lawrenceville to discuss a possible withdrawal. He said the meeting was called to introduce campaign staffers to noted GOP consultant Arthur Finklestein, recently hired by DiFrancesco.

"Pretty much a routine strategy meeting," he said. "If anyone was talking about Don withdrawing, I didn't hear it."

Added DiFrancesco campaign Chairman Lew Eisenberg, "Everyone's heard a lot of rumors today and, clearly, Don needs to explain some things.

"But at the end of the day, I think people will see that these allegations are just that -- rumors. A newspaper story is not going to drive him from this race."

The New York Times cited a confidential 1998 report by two lawyers -- one a Democrat and the other a Republican -- that concluded DiFrancesco should be removed from his township office.

The newspaper said that Republican members of the Scotch Plains Council told DiFrancesco, who at the time was state Senate president, that he would be ousted as township attorney unless he could explain the concerns detailed in the 1998 report. The issue, though, became moot when Democrats won control of the council that year and replaced DiFrancesco with a Democratic attorney.

According to The Times, council members had become convinced that DiFrancesco had lobbied Scotch Plains officials to give his family members a zoning change they wanted, while failing to disclose his own financial stake in the project's success.

They also were concerned that DiFrancesco had ruled on other projects involving a major home builder, shortly after the developer had given him $225,000 to pay a judgment, and that he influenced township officials to drop plans for a youth soccer field because his relatives were interested in developing the property, the newspaper report said.


Trenton Bureau Correspondent Nancy Parello contributed to this report, which contains material from The Associated Press.

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