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Originally appeared in the New York Post on March 26, 2001

IN THE world of New Jersey politics, scandal-plagued acting Gov. Donald DiFrancesco, who took over from Christie Whitman two months ago, is the ultimate soldier.

During a 25-year career in the Garden State statehouse, the unassuming DiFrancesco sat on committees and did the tedious work of government without complaint or glory. "Bland" might have been his watchword.

Now the low-key pol finds himself buried in scandals - and his gubernatorial hopes in peril -- as the state's Joint Legislative Committee on Ethical Standards meets this week to determine whether he violated ethics rules by soliciting loans in return for favors.

Political taint and corruption are time-honored New Jersey traditions, which Whitman largely managed to avoid. But almost since the moment he took Whitman's job, scandal has swirled around DiFrancesco, no matter how hard he tries to escape it.

His position became so politically uncomfortable that Friday, in an attempt to show he has nothing to hide, DiFrancesco released a stack of documents, including tax returns and the police report from an accident in which a car he was riding in struck and killed a pedestrian.

He called it the "most comprehensive and complete disclosure ever" by a New Jersey politician.

The 56-year-old made the unusual move after enduring weeks of flack because he used his influence to bail out his older brother Paul from a series of financial setbacks.

Despite the growing heat, not everyone is lined up to attack the acting governor.

In his hometown of Scotch Plains, pals say the man they called "Duck" in high school did nothing wrong and -- more importantly -- did the right thing.

"If you can't go to your brother for help, who can you go to?" said Carl Sicola, 58, who has been DiFrancesco's best friend since the pair met as children in a Scotch Plains playground.

"Donnie did nothing wrong. He helped his brother. It's not something he did for his own benefit. He didn't make a cent."

Outside loyal Scotch Plains, DiFrancesco's brotherly love tends to lose it's rosy sheen.

"He's wounded. He thought he was in a political honeymoon and now it's turned into Freddy Krueger," said New York Democratic consultant Jeff Plaut.

Plaut added that since the scandals broke in late February, GOP pooh-bahs have been whispering about ditching DiFrancesco and throwing their support in a GOP gubernatorial primary behind former Rep. Bob Franks -- "a perfect candidate" -- who narrowly lost a U.S. Senate bid last year despite being outspent by about 16 to 1 by Democrat multimillionaire Jon Corzine.

"DiFrancesco started out as a clean white shirt. But having benefactors bail you out who have business dealings with the government is never good," Plaut said. "If it smells bad, it usually is bad."

DiFRANCESCO was elected Senate president in 1992 and was instrumental in passing an array of bills, including environmental and health initiatives.

As the highest-ranking Republican, he was elevated to acting governor when then-Gov. Whitman was appointed Environmental Protection Agency head in January by President Bush. He'll hold the office for the remaining 11 months of Whitman's term.

But, before he nestles in for a further four years, DiFrancesco faces a dogged battle -- first with likely primary rival Mayor Bret Schundler of Jersey City and then the probable Democratic candidate, Jim McGreevy, in the November election.

Whatever his political fate, bucolic Scotch Plains, 45 minutes and a world away from New York City, is squarely behind DiFrancesco. Here his support for brother Paul, 61, is the mark of a stand-up guy.

One member of the acting governor's staff joked to a New Jersey newspaper recently that, in high school, Paul was "voted Most Likely to Derail his Brother's Gubernatorial Aspirations."

The same brother made a series of property deals in the '80s that were torpedoed by the 1987 stock-market crash and left him bankrupt. Donald says he wanted to help Paul out and took out a second mortgage on his home and raised $1 million from friends.

The problem is that some of the "friends" who helped DiFrancesco also do business with the state government.

One of those was Tony Sartor, who later received a $3.5 million contract in 1998 to run state auto inspections. Another was Robert Montuoro, whom DiFrancesco later backed as an appointee to the state Sports Authority.

On March 13, two Bergen County Democrats, State Sen. Byron Baer and Assemblyman Charles Zisa, filed an ethics complaint about DiFrancesco.

"It's important that when these questions come up, they're answered," Baer said.

SCOTCH PLAINS was largely built by Italian immigrants. The churches, downtown core, and big stone homes all carry the stamp of master masons. The leafy town is home to 23,000 people and in many ways reflects an America that slipped into history 30 years ago.

Families were -- and are -- important in this town. When DiFrancesco's daughter Maria was badly burned several years ago, people in Scotch Plains lined up to donate blood for the young woman.

DiFrancesco, who lives here with his wife, Diane, his three daughters, large extended family and lifelong friends, is the product of hard-working immigrant parents.

In high school, DiFrancesco was a natural athlete excelling at baseball, basketball and football. The 1962 Scotch Plains-Fanwood HS yearbook named the now-bald politico the "cutest boy in school" who "drove the girls wild."

DiFrancesco studied business at Penn State and law at Seton Hall. In 1967, he married Diane, his college sweetheart, who came from a family of FDR Democrats.

The ambitious young lawyer started making his mark in Union County GOP circles and was first elected to the Assembly in 1975. A moderate Republican -- his views were shaped by ex-Gov. Tom Kean -- DiFrancesco finally rose to president of the New Jersey Senate in 1992.

Vinnie Losavio, a childhood friend who owns bustling John's Meat Market in Scotch Plains, will tolerate no criticism of the acting governor.

"He didn't do anything wrong. What did he do? He helped his brother," Losavio said from behind his counter. "If somebody in your family was in trouble, you'd help them, right?"

GRAPHIC: WHO, ME? What should have been Donald DiFrancesco's honeymoon period as acting New Jersey governor has proven to be a nightmare. AP
'DID NOTHING WRONG':"Donnie did nothing wrong. It's not something he did for his own benefit. He didn't make a cent," says Carl Sicola (above) of Scotch Plains, a childhood friend of DiFrancesco's. Dan Cronin
SOCK IT TO 'EM:DiFrancesco, with Pam Alexson, was voted the "cutest boy in school" at Scotch Plains-Fanwood HS.

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