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Mezzatesta diverted school money to fire departments

House Education Committee Chairman Jerry Mezzatesta steered a $75,000 state Department of Education grant to eight Hampshire County volunteer fire departments earlier this year, according to records and state officials.

Mezzatesta originally requested the grant for a Hampshire County nonprofit sheltered workshop, which serves some Hampshire special education students.

The money was later promised to the Hampshire County Red Cross affiliate and "Emergency Medical Service Training Facilities" in Romney and Springfield.

But Mezzatesta, with the Hampshire County school superintendent's blessing, ultimately diverted the bulk of the grant money in February to the volunteer fire departments for "homeland security" training.

Mezzatesta personally met with firefighters to announce the grants, said David Pancake, executive director of the Hampshire County Economic Development Authority.

"These fire companies don't have any idea where that money came from, and Jerry tried to explain it to them," Pancake said Tuesday. "As far as they're concerned, it's Budget Digest money that Jerry gets for them every year."

The Hampshire County Fairgrounds and the Capon Bridge Public Library also received some of the grant money.

Department of Education officials acknowledged this week they didn't know where the $75,000 grant wound up.

Mezzatesta, D-Hampshire, also works as a $60,000-a-year "community specialist/grant writer" for the Hampshire school system.

In 1999, Hampshire school officials and Mezzatesta promised the state Ethics Commission that he would not seek grants from state agencies.

"Jerry Mezzatesta clearly and blatantly violated his agreement with the Ethics Commission," said Gary Abernathy, executive director of the state Republican Party, which filed an ethics complaint against Mezzatesta earlier this month. "It begs the question, if you found this happening once, how many other times has money like this apparently been misappropriated that we don't know about?"

Mezzatesta did not return repeated phone calls and e-mail messages this week and last. Hampshire County schools Superintendent David Friend could not be reached for comment Tuesday, despite repeated attempts.

In 1999, Hampshire school officials sent a "resolution and directive" to the state Ethics Commission, stating that Mezzatesta "is not to submit, process, monitor, direct or advance any state grants from any state agency."

In March 2003, Mezzatesta sent a letter to state schools Assistant Superintendent Stan Hopkins, requesting a $75,000 grant for the nonprofit Special Services Sheltered Workshop in Romney.

Mezzatesta sent the letter on legislative letterhead, and asked Hopkins to call him at his school board office in Romney.

Hopkins approved the request the following day.

"I never felt any undue pressure from Jerry," Hopkins said. "I never felt pressure to fund anything in Hampshire County. I always look at these things based on the merits."

The Hampshire school system received the money in July, and a month later sent a $75,000 check to the Hampshire County Development Authority, which distributes state grant money to numerous agencies.

The sheltered workshop never received the money, however, after Mezzatesta notified the agency last fall that the funds were being diverted, according to Margaret Keister, the nonprofit's office manager.

"Jerry said he had to withdraw it, that he was giving it to the fire departments," Keister said. "We could have very well used that money."

"If you found this happening once, how many other times has money like this apparently been misappropriated that we don't know about?"

Gary Abernathy, executive director, West Virginia Republican Party, which has filed an ethics complaint against Mezzatesta

In February, Mezzatesta called Hopkins and requested that the $75,000 be diverted to the Red Cross, "emergency medical service training facilities in Springfield and Romney," and Hampshire County fairgrounds, Hopkins said.

Hopkins said he never spoke to Friend about the grant transfer, but received a faxed letter purportedly from Friend the next day.

The letter was sent from the House Education Committee fax machine, and Friend's signature doesn't match dozens of other signatures on documents he signed at the Department of Education.

Hopkins said he didn't notice at the time that it had been sent from Mezzatesta's fax machine and that someone other than Friend apparently had signed the letter.

Hopkins said he didn't hear about the $75,000 grant again until two weeks ago when Mezzatesta called him about it, just days after the Gazette filed a Freedom of Information request with the Department of Education for the documents.

"He was preparing something for the Ethics Commission," Hopkins said. "He wanted to clarify that the sheltered workshop was a nonprofit."

Hampshire County's Red Cross representative, Donna Steward, said Tuesday that her agency never received the money. Also, the Romney and Springfield rescue squads don't have training facilities and didn't get any of the grant, according to Hampshire County emergency service officials.

Pancake said the volunteer fire departments will use the grant money to prepare for a "major disaster and homeland security."

Hampshire County Office of Emergency Services Director Mike Crouse said some fire departments are using the grant money to purchase equipment.

"They weren't bound to any particular thing with that grant," said Crouse, whose office also received $5,000.

The sheltered workshop also was awarded $5,000 from the grant, documents show.

Last week, the Ethics Commission started investigations into complaints that Mezzatesta improperly steered state Department of Education grants to Hampshire schools, and that he "double-dipped" by collecting his legislative pay and school board administrator salary at the same time.

In 1999, Ethics Commission members approved Mezzatesta's board office job after Hampshire school officials and Mezzatesta pledged that he would only seek federal and private foundation grants.

Hampshire school officials have acknowledged that Mezzatesta hasn't applied for or secured any federal or private grants over the past five years, even though his job description lists that as his top duty.

Earlier this month, State Department of Education officials confirmed that Mezzatesta also helped to secure a $70,000 Department of Education grant that helped offset the cost of a $143,000 audit of the Hampshire school system's finance office. The grant was supposed to be used for staff development.


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