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DiFrancesco Places Blame on Democrats Again

Originally appeared in the New York Times on April 18, 2001

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"The Times report was the latest in a series of damaging revelations..."

TRENTON, April 17
Acting Gov. Donald T. DiFrancesco denied today that he had repeatedly violated legal-ethics rules and had been threatened with dismissal as the lawyer for his hometown government in 1998, and accused Democrats linked to James E. McGreevey, that party's likely gubernatorial candidate, of leaking material about those allegations to The New York Times.

But Mr. DiFrancesco's opponent in the Republican gubernatorial primary, Bret D. Schundler, accused Mr. DiFrancesco of profiting from his public positions and said Mr. DiFrancesco should quit the race. And in a potentially troublesome sign for the acting governor, the Republican Party chairman in Monmouth -- the county with the fourth-largest number of enrolled Republicans -- said he was considering withdrawing his endorsement of Mr. DiFrancesco and remaining neutral in the primary.

The Times reported that two special counsels in Mr. DiFrancesco's hometown, Scotch Plains, one a Democrat and one a Republican, accused Mr. DiFrancesco in 1998 of repeated ethics violations in connection with a failed real estate transaction by his relatives.

The lawyers concluded that Mr. DiFrancesco, as township attorney, had, among other things, lobbied town officials to give relatives a zoning change they wanted, while failing to disclose his own financial stake in the project's success; ruled on other projects involving a major home builder shortly after receiving $225,000 from the home builder to pay off a legal judgment against himself; and influenced town officials to drop plans for a soccer field because his relatives held out hope of developing the property where it would be built.

The Times report was the latest in a series of damaging revelations about Mr. DiFrancesco, the State Senate president, who became acting governor on Feb. 1 and had been expected to enjoy a relatively easy contest for the Republican nomination in June against Mr. Schundler, a staunch conservative.

Mr. DiFrancesco, a moderate, had been widely seen as a much more viable candidate in the fall election, given New Jersey's historically moderate electorate. But Mr. Schundler, the mayor of Jersey City, is now arguing that the accumulated weight of all the negative publicity has made Mr. DiFrancesco unelectable against Mr. McGreevey in November.

"I don't think that Don could even possibly win in the general election," Mr. Schundler said at a news conference here today. "He can't even rally the Republican votes."

Mr. Schundler argued that Mr. DiFrancesco had already been defined, unflatteringly, in voters' eyes by news articles about his business, legal and real estate interests. "All these things are opportunities to make a profit on the basis of a position that you hold," he asserted. "Personal enrichment is not what government should be about."

Mr. DiFrancesco's camp remained defiant today, although some supporters appeared to be reeling. "There's a lot of panic out there," said one senior Republican official.

Mr. DiFrancesco not only denied the allegations, but also played down their potential to harm his candidacy. "People recognize this for what it is, a political attack during a campaign season," he said at an appearance in Hackensack. "I believe the Democrats are trying to make a big deal about it. It's designed to get me to back off, to leave, to really hurt my chances of running for office."

But tonight there were signs that the revelations were having an impact: William F. Dowd, the Monmouth County Republican chairman, who had earlier endorsed Mr. DiFrancesco, said he was now considering remaining neutral in the primary. "I'm polling people," he said. "It's really difficult for all of us."

The lack of an endorsement would mean that neither of the two gubernatorial candidates' names would appear atop the so-called party line of endorsed candidates on primary ballots in Monmouth County.

The new allegations against Mr. DiFrancesco also surfaced at an inopportune time because of an oft- overlooked but critical deadline under New Jersey election law. Mr. DiFrancesco filed his petitions as a candidate for governor last week. In doing so, he took advantage of an option to name a committee of three supporters who, should he abandon the race by a certain deadline, would be empowered to name someone to take his place in the primary.

But that deadline is Wednesday, meaning that Mr. DiFrancesco would have to make such a decision by then or his departure would leave the Republican Party with no alternative to Mr. Schundler.

Mr. DiFrancesco, unbowed, insisted today that he was in the race to stay. And his choice for chairman of the Republican State Committee, Joseph M. Kyrillos Jr., a state senator from Monmouth County, speculated that few voters were even paying attention to the campaign yet.

"The governor is running, he's running hard, and most people in New Jersey are just tuning in to this primary race," he said. "The most political thing that most active citizens did today was vote in the school board elections, not discuss the Republican primary. And there are a bunch more weeks to come."

Mr. DiFrancesco asserted today that allies of Mr. McGreevey, the Woodbridge mayor, who is unopposed for the Democratic nomination for governor, had leaked the latest allegations about him.

That prompted a scolding retort by Richard McGrath, Mr. McGreevey's spokesman.

"Mr. DiFrancesco's accusation is absolutely untrue," he said. "In fact, as the accounts of his business and political deals have surfaced, we refrained from attacking him head-on, and we repeatedly said, `He deserves the opportunity to explain himself.' But if his idea of an explanation is to blame others, then he's not taking responsibility for his own actions, and he's not displaying the qualities of accountability and leadership New Jersey deserves in a governor."

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