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Lawyer Says DiFrancesco Had Him Fired in Retaliation for '98 Ethics Complaint

Originally appeared in The New York Times on Thursday, April 19, 2001

TRENTON, April 18
A special counsel who concluded in 1998 that Donald T. DiFrancesco had violated legal-ethics rules and should be fired as township attorney for Scotch Plains, N.J., accused Mr. DiFrancesco last fall of ordering his ouster as political payback, according to confidential documents obtained by The New York Times.

Mr. DiFrancesco, then the State Senate president and now also the acting governor, denied the written allegation by Lewis M. Markowitz, a Democratic lawyer who worked from May 1995 until last October as special counsel for the Scotch Plains Township Council on matters involving Mr. DiFrancesco or his relatives.

The town's mayor, a Republican, backed up Mr. DiFrancesco today. But a Democratic Council member corroborated Mr. Markowitz's account in detail.

The dispute came to light on a day when Mr. DiFrancesco said that suggestions that he might quit the governor's race were absurd, even after the latest in a wave of damaging news reports. Republican officials nonetheless described the party as in turmoil and said Mr. DiFrancesco's campaign was struggling to hold onto its support among county Republican chairmen.

Both of Mr. DiFrancesco's rivals for governor, meanwhile, criticized him in State House appearances. James E. McGreevey, the Democratic candidate and Woodbridge's mayor, said Mr. DiFrancesco was obliged to "disprove" the allegations against him, "not merely to state that they are not true."

And Bret D. Schundler, the mayor of Jersey City, whom he faces in the Republican primary, said Mr. DiFrancesco had alienated his own supporters. "A lot of them feel that he's been dishonest with them," Mr. Schundler said, "because he had looked them in the eye and said there wasn't anything that he had done which anyone should be concerned about, anything which would end up in the front page of the papers, anything which would be a problem for the party."

Charlie Smith, Mr. DiFrancesco's campaign manager, responded, "The fact of the matter is, Don DiFrancesco's behavior at all times was proper." He dismissed the reports as "political attacks by his political enemies -- the two most guilty culprits being Mayor Jim McGreevey and Mayor Bret Schundler, who will do anything to avoid a discussion on issues."

On Tuesday, The Times reported that Mr. DiFrancesco was accused in June 1998 of repeated ethics violations in connection with a failed real estate transaction by his relatives in Scotch Plains, Mr. DiFrancesco's hometown. The allegations were made by Mr. Markowitz, along with a Republican special counsel for the township, Douglas W. Hansen.

The lawyers concluded that Mr. DiFrancesco, as township attorney in the 1990's, had, among other things, lobbied town officials to give his 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 lawyers urged Council members to fire Mr. DiFrancesco if he refused to resign. Instead, Mr. DiFrancesco was dismissed as township attorney only after Democrats won control of the Council in November 1998, though he was not rehired after Republicans recaptured a majority a year later.

Mr. Hansen, rather, became township attorney in January 2000 and still holds the post. But last September, according to documents and interviews, Mr. Markowitz was fired as special counsel by Martin Marks, the Scotch Plains mayor.

In an Oct. 20 letter to the Township Council, marked personal and confidential, Mr. Markowitz asserted that "for purely political reasons, I was relieved as special counsel and Doug Hansen was substituted in my place."

"You are all aware," he continued, "that the substitution occurred because the Senate president dictated that I should do no more legal work for the Township of Scotch Plains because of my involvement" in the property Mr. DiFrancesco's relatives had sought to develop until the township foreclosed upon it for nonpayment of taxes.

In an interview Monday night, Mr. DiFrancesco denied a role in Mr. Markowitz's dismissal. "Absolutely, I had nothing to do with that," he said. "The Town Council made their own decision, and quite frankly, why not? It's Doug Hansen, the attorney, he can do whatever he wants with this case. But as you know, people like to say, blame it on somebody else."

Mr. Markowitz refused to discuss the matter today, citing the lawyer-client privilege. "I will state, however, that anything I ever said in any letter to the Township Council was 100 percent, totally accurate," he said.

Dr. Marks, a supporter of Mr. DiFrancesco's, said there was no truth to what he called Mr. Markowitz's "presumption and assumption" that Mr. DiFrancesco had pressured the Council to fire him.

Dr. Marks said it was "strictly a financial decision." Mr. Hansen was already on retainer and was capable of handling the matters that had prompted Mr. Markowitz's hiring, he said. Mr. DiFrancesco's conflicts of interest had become moot with his departure from the job of township attorney.

But Geri Samuel, one of two Democrats on the Council, corroborated Mr. Markowitz's account. She said Dr. Marks had given her the same reasons for firing the special counsel, but with another important impetus for his decision.

"Before the mayor called Mr. Markowitz, he called to tell me he was going to be replacing Mr. Markowitz as special counsel with Mr. Hansen, who was also familiar with the case," Ms. Samuel said. "I said, 'Why?' and he said, 'Doug is familiar with the case, and we don't need special counsel, and I'm getting a lot of pressure from the Senate president.'

"I said, 'Oh?' And he said, 'You can only push so hard.' "

Dr. Marks, told of Ms. Samuel's version, responded: "Baloney. That's a lie."

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