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That nifty real-estate deal between Nick Cortellucci and you, the people, would never have made the evening news last night were it not for the skillful research of a curious academic.

Before the publication in 1999 of Funding the Common Sense Revolutionaries, an article by political scientist Robert MacDermid of York University, few outsiders would have cared to know anything about Mr. Cortellucci, his brother Mario and their partner, Saverio Montemarano.

As a result of Prof. MacDermid's creative sleuthing, however, these local businessmen have suddenly emerged as three of the most intriguing -- and potentially influential -- figures in Mike Harris's Toronto.

Mr. Cortellucci's close connection to the ruling party is the reason Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty jumped on the businessman's purchase last year of a $13.27-million Mississauga property from the Ontario Realty Corp. in the legislature yesterday. Mr. McGuinty accused the government of subsidizing the purchase by taking back a $10.77-million mortgage filled with provisions worth more than $2-million to Mr. Cortellucci.

Looking at the face of the deal, it is impossible to tell whether Mr. Cortellucci paid fair market value for the Mississauga land -- or indeed, whether he will have done so by the time the payment holidays expire and his chance for a further 7-per-cent discount passes.

Enter the professor. It's not that Prof. MacDermid went out and researched this property; instead, what he did was to make every deal the Cortellucci-Montemarano companies touch a matter of high public interest.

His study of election contributions to the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party shows that the Montemarano-Cortellucci families combined to contribute the second-largest amount the party received between 1995 and 1997.

The biggest contributors to the party in the election year 1999 were companies controlled by financier-developer Peter Munk, which gave a total of $121,000, according to Prof. MacDermid. The Cortellucci-Montemarano companies were second, giving $97,871 at least. No other groups of companies or individuals came close.

That $97,871 should be considered a running total, however, Prof. MacDermid said, because nobody yet knows if any other companies in the constellation also contributed funds. "I keep discovering more companies that are part of [the group]" he said.

Prof. MacDermid only discovered the companies in his existing list after noticing the same addresses showing up several times on the record of corporate donors. After a lot of legwork he tied almost 30 of them back to the Cortellucci and Montemarano families, most headquartered in obscure suburban industrial plazas.

The families do not fly totally below the radar. They are well known in the suburban Italian community, and the province appointed Mario Cortellucci to the York Region police board in 1998. His Hollywood Princess banquet hall in Concord is a popular venue for Tory fundraising events. Last November he and Mr. Montemarano hosted Mr. Harris's "Fall Dinner" there.

But it is still surprising to discover such little-known players expressing, through the medium of party donations, such strong political convictions -- especially when compared to other big-dollar contributors, including Mr. Munk and former lieutenant-governor Hal Jackman, who are so much better known.

The pattern of contributions from the Montemarano-Cortellucci families suggests they would prefer to maintain a low profile. And the fact that they did business with the province's corruption-riddled realty company is definitely news.

Funding the Common Sense Revolutionaries was funded by the Toronto-based Centre for Social Justice and is published at