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DiFrancesco says he expected 'no honeymoon' at State House

Originally appeared in the Bergen Record on Sunday, April 1, 2001
The Associated Press

LAMBERTVILLE -- Acting Gov. Donald DiFrancesco said some people may be surprised at the rough sledding he has endured in his first two months in office, but he is not among them.

"There is no honeymoon in New Jersey. I knew things would be rough," DiFrancesco said. "To think that things weren't going to happen is to some degree naive of all of us."

He was, however, disturbed by the intensity of the scrutiny he has faced.

DiFrancesco said he expected that $575,000 in personal loans he received in 1993 to help him out of a real-estate jam would draw public attention. "Of course I knew that would come out," he said, but added, "I did not expect it to be blown way out of proportion, that's true."

There have been other disclosures about questionable land deals with his brother, Paul DiFrancesco. One in Warren Township ended up before the state Supreme Court, another in Scotch Plains ended up with a major developer walking away from a $325,000 loss.

DiFrancesco was also caught off guard by the uproar last week over his nominated treasurer, Isabel Miranda. She withdrew her name after a newspaper reported she had been fired from Citibank in 1996 for misuse of travel expenses so she could carry on an extramarital affair.

"I am more disappointed than anything else," DiFrancesco said Friday. "I felt she would make a great treasurer, a great public servant." Miranda decried the report as inaccurate and unfair.

A high-ranking aide to DiFrancesco and two Republican lawmakers familiar with Miranda's nomination told The Associated Press last week that her ties to her most recent employer were more at issue than the Citibank allegations.

The three, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, relayed the following sequence of events:

When recruited to become acting treasurer, Miranda, a friend and neighbor of the DiFrancescos in Scotch Plains, said she would take a leave of absence from her position at U.S. Trust, a bond firm. DiFrancesco agreed, saying he was assured by his staff that U.S. Trust had no ties to the state, and that if the company did become involved in state contracts, Miranda could recuse herself.

U.S. Trust was purchased by Charles Schwab & Co. last year, and managers who agreed to stay on were promised bonuses. One aide said Miranda was in line for a six-figure bonus that she would forfeit if she resigned.

When the Citibank story broke, Miranda was profoundly upset. The Senate Judiciary Committee added to her troubles by postponing her confirmation hearing. State police detectives who had done her background check reopened their investigation, and Chief Counsel Jim Harkness agreed to the unusual step of allowing certain committee members to examine the investigation file.

Meanwhile, Sen. Robert Martin, R-Morris, said committee members wanted the leave-of-absence arrangement fully aired. The budget committee chairman, Sen. Robert Littell, R-Sussex, said he would be uncomfortable with a treasurer with ties to a financial firm.

Late Tuesday, DiFrancesco told Miranda the arrangement might not be sufficient. Miranda called the governor's office Wednesday morning to say she would withdraw her name.

The acting governor preferred to highlight the week's positives on Friday after a bill signing at the library in Lambertville.

On Wednesday, he gave the oath of office to a friend, Education Commissioner Vito Gagliardi, whose appointment was warmly received.

On Thursday, DiFrancesco signed a law giving cities and towns a $150 million break in pension payments that could hold property tax rates in check for municipal services.

And in Lambertville, he signed a ban on truck traffic along Route 29, where 10 months ago a truck smashed into a store and killed a woman.

DiFrancesco used a fistful of pens to create the signature so there would be souvenirs for everyone.

He gave one to a Democrat, Sen. Shirley Turner.

"It's my first Donnie pen," she exclaimed.

"Hopefully there will be many more," he added.

DiFrancesco is waiting to sign bills on higher rebates and prescription drugs for middle-income seniors, two crucial assets for him on the campaign trail.

Some express concern about DiFrancesco's candidacy. One Republican strategist said, "I don't know how much more of this he can take. I don't know how much more I can take."

Republican political analyst Steve Salmore said local party officials control this perception. "He is damaged if they say he is damaged. It is as simple as that. Can he win? They have to think so."

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