When he died last August, Maryland's politically savvy racing mogul, Frank J. De Francis, was lauded for lobbying the moribund racing industry back to financial health.
A year later, however, De Francis's estate is ensnarled in $17 million in claims from former investors in his Freestate Raceway, who charge that he improperly skimmed profits from the lucrative harness track.
"Certain expenditures were not kosher," lawyer Joseph L. Ely of Silver Spring said in an interview. Ely, who was a limited partner in the track, has filed a $1 million claim against the estate and helped others do the same.
The accusations have incensed De Francis's heirs, who strongly deny the charges and vow to fight them.
"Their claims are totally, completely without merit," said Joseph A. De Francis, De Francis's son, and the executor named in his will. "We intend to contest them fully; we have no intention to settle or compromise in the least."
De Francis, whose personal holdings were estimated during his lifetime at $30 million, made his money as a lawyer lobbying for the West German government and others. During the administration of Gov. Harry Hughes, De Francis was secretary of the Maryland Department of Economic and Employment Development.
In 1980, De Francis bought the financially troubled Laurel Raceway harness track for $5.8 million and renamed it Freestate.
After acquiring majority stakes in Laurel Race Course and Pimlico Race Course, he became known as the undisputed czar of Maryland racing.
In claims filed with the Howard County Register of Wills, seven former limited partners in the now-defunct track say De Francis may have improperly taken significant sums of money through management fees, pension funds and bonuses.
"There's a general feeling that since everyone was making a lot of money, the operators felt that gave them the rights to rip off the general partners," said a lawyer working with the partners.
The former Freestate partners, who have yet to secure formal legal representation, said they are hoping to obtain more detailed financial documents that they can have reviewed by auditors. They acknowledge that some of their accusations are vague and that they have no proof of illegality.
The ex-partners also want to know whether De Francis tapped track profits to make political contributions.
A strong supporter of Maryland Democrats such as Gov. William Donald Schaefer and Howard County Executive Elizabeth Bobo, De Francis also was among the largest individual contributors to the Republican National Committee in 1988, giving more than $100,000.
The dispute came to light in probate documents filed in Howard County, where De Francis lived on a 205-acre estate, Walnut Grove, in Ellicott City.
Along with the Freestate claims, the documents provide a glimpse into the grand lifestyle of the politically connected De Francis, who persuaded the state legislature in 1983 to cut the state's 6 percent tax on racing receipts to 3 percent. He also successfully fought to have it slashed a year later to one quarter of one percent.
The partial tally of De Francis's assets reveals $12 million so far and lists such items as a $6,000 Federal-style chest-on-chest in his home, a $2,300 sterling silver tea service and $17,500 oriental silk rug at his Laurel Race Course office and a $3,000 carved wooden horse at a downtown Baltimore address.
De Francis sold Freestate in 1989 for $10 million to Bowie developer Mark Vogel; the State Racing Commission transferred Freestate's racing days to Vogel's Rosecroft Raceway. For the Freestate real estate, De Francis was paid $17 million by a Washington development firm, The Cafritz Group, which plans an office park on the site.
Now, some of the Freestate limited partners are arguing they should have been paid more when De Francis dissolved the track.
Developer Vogel dismisses the allegations about De Francis. "When you're a prominent person like Frank, people just come after you, even now," Vogel said. "I found Frank to be one of the most honest and forthright people I've ever dealt with."
One of the former partners, Burton Solomon of Bethesda, said he was tricked into selling out his share by a "gloom and doom" letter that forecast financial difficulties for the track. He sold out his interest for 1 1/2 times what he invested but would have made nine times that amount had he stayed in, he said.
"I was told the real estate wasn't worth a damn," Solomon said. "I was so kept in the dark and so deceived, I was really raked over the coals."
Michael I. Sanders, the Washington lawyer handling the estate, said Solomon was never pressured to sell. All the limited partners received the same letter about the track's condition, Sanders said, declining to discuss its contents.
According to his attorney, Joel D. Davis is among the former partners upset about the handling of Freestate funds. Davis is a former Bethesda accountant recently convicted of hiring an arsonist. He also faces a charge of conspiring to murder an Internal Revenue Service agent. He transferred his racetrack interest to his wife, Evelyn, who has filed a claim against the De Francis estate.
Other former Freestate partners filing claims include Julia Pickard, Theodore Roumel, Wilma W. Roumel for Theodore Roumel and Hilda B. Zeldon. The Freestate Racing Association General Partnership has filed a $10 million claim.