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Letters contradict Mezzatesta

Last spring, House Education Chairman Jerry Mezzatesta told the state Ethics Commission he never solicited grant money for Hampshire County Schools, where he works as a board office administrator.

He gave his word, and submitted a sworn statement.

West Virginia schools Superintendent David Stewart also provided an affidavit, at Mezzatesta's request. In it, Stewart said Mezzatesta never solicited a state Department of Education grant from him "personally."

But documents obtained this week by The Charleston Gazette show that Mezzatesta solicited a $100,000 grant directly from Stewart last year.

Mezzatesta also requested, through a top Department of Education administrator, that a grant to Hampshire schools be continued in 2002.

The documents contradict Mezzatesta's and Stewart's previous sworn statements, which prompted the Ethics Commission to dismiss complaints and drop an investigation against Mezzatesta last month.

In a Jan. 2, 2003, letter to Mezzatesta, Stewart wrote, "This is to confirm our telephone conversation of this morning concerning your request for additional funding for Hampshire County Schools to offset some of the costs for providing educational services to the students assigned to the Potomac Center."

Stewart said Wednesday that he did not recall the conversation and follow-up letter when he gave his sworn statement to the Ethics Commission. He confirmed that Mezzatesta's funding request was a $100,000 grant.

"He talked to me about money," Stewart acknowledged after reviewing the letter Wednesday. "Until this moment, I didn't recall this. But I wrote it. That's what it says."

Asked whether Mezzatesta solicited grants from the Department of Education, Stewart said: "He's asking for money. That's how it appears from these letters."

In 1999, Mezzatesta promised the Ethics Commission that he would not solicit grants from "any state agency" after being hired as a community specialist/grant writer for Hampshire schools.

Mezzatesta, D-Hampshire, did not return telephone messages Wednesday. He repeatedly has declined to answer questions about grants and the Ethics Commission investigation.

'We found they they had plenty of money'

In January 2003, Mezzatesta requested $100,000 in special education funds from the Department of Education, according to Stewart's letter.

Mezzatesta said the money was needed to help pay for costs related to teaching Hampshire County special education students who live at the Potomac Center, which houses children with behavior problems and mental illnesses, according to the letter.

But Hampshire County school officials never intended to use the money for the special education students, records show. Instead, they planned to pump the money into a new Romney Middle School, according to a letter sent by Hampshire County's superintendent to the state School Building Authority last year.

The county was having budget problems, and Hampshire school officials were having a difficult time coming up with $1 million in matching money they had promised to the School Building Authority for the new middle school.

Dee Braley, executive director of the Department of Education's Office of Special Education, said she rejected requests from Stewart and department Finance Director Joe Panetta to release the $100,000 in special education funds. Panetta approached her twice, she said.

"Joe said, 'Jerry needs $100,000 for Hampshire County.' He indicated that Dr. Stewart had promised it to him," Braley recalled this week. "I said, 'I don't have the money.' He said, 'Are you sure?' I said, 'I'm sure.'

"Five days later, he came back. He said, 'Dr. Stewart wants to meet with you.' I said, 'What's going on?' Joe said, 'They're having difficulty making the local match.'"

Panetta said Wednesday he could not recall whether he mentioned Mezzatesta's name when he discussed the $100,000 grant with Braley.

"I would have thought I said, 'Mr. Friend [Hampshire County's school superintendent],'" Panetta said. "I was hoping she had the money in her account. I didn't want them to lose the School Building Authority grant."

In his letter to Mezzatesta, Stewart said, "the Department of Education should be able to provide $100,000 in additional funding."

But Stewart told Mezzatesta he would have to wait until Braley studied whether Hampshire County schools needed an extra $100,000 a year for the Potomac Center children.

Braley later determined that Hampshire schools had enough money. The school system already was receiving $800,000 a year in the state Budget Digest, which Mezzatesta secured, to educate about two-dozen Potomac Center children who attended Hampshire schools. That amounts to about $40,000 per student.

"Money was not the issue," Braley said. "We found they had plenty of money. That's why I turned them down."

Braley said she talked with Panetta about Mezzatesta's request weeks later.

"I asked, 'Did you get the money for Mezzatesta?' He said, 'Oh yeah,'" Braley recalled.

Records show that Hampshire schools received a $100,000 Department of Education grant for "strategic staff development" in March 2003. But it is unclear whether that money went to build the middle school.

Stewart said the money was supposed to be used to train Hampshire County school Finance Department employees.

'I have never solicited any grants for ... Hampshire ... '

Six months earlier, Mezzatesta fired off a separate letter to Braley, requesting that she continue a $120,000-a-year grant to Hampshire County schools.

"I understand that with these additional funds being allocated you were not going to supply additional funds as you have in the past," Mezzatesta wrote in a May 29, 2002, letter to Braley. "However, at this time I would ask for you to reconsider that decision."

Braley denied Mezzatesta's request to renew the grant.

In a sworn statement to the Ethics Commission in April, Mezzatesta stated, "I have never solicited any grants for the Hampshire County board."

Hampshire County schools Superintendent David Friend also provided an affidavit that says, "Jerry Mezzatesta has never solicited any grants for the Hampshire County Board of Education."

A Jan. 3, 2003, letter that Friend sent to the School Building Authority seems to contradict his statement to the Ethics Commission.

Friend's letter states, "Mr. Panetta has found approximately another half a million dollars that Delegate Mezzatesta brought back to the county in the Budget Digest and other grant monies."

Friend did not return phone messages Wednesday. He has declined the speak to the Gazette and has accused the newspaper of publishing "false and untrue" stories "solely to engage in a character assassination of Jerry Mezzatesta."

'Jerry Mezzatesta is a documented liar'

In April, the state Republican Party and former Kanawha County school board candidate Tifney Terry filed ethics complaints against Mezzatesta, alleging that he improperly used his influence as a legislator to secure state Department of Education grants for Hampshire County schools.

Terry and Wanda Carney, who head a state government watchdog group called West Virginia Wants to Know, plan to ask the Ethics Commission to reopen its investigation.

"The letter Stewart wrote invalidates the affidavits," Carney said. "The affidavits were false. Here, we have proof that Jerry Mezzatesta is a documented liar."

In March 2003, Mezzatesta solicited a $75,000 grant from the Department of Education, according to a letter he sent to a top department administrator. The bulk of the money eventually was diverted to volunteer fire departments in Hampshire County.

Ethics Commission officials said Mezzatesta did not violate ethics law because the money never went to his employer, Hampshire schools.

The Ethics Commission meets today at 10 a.m., at 1207 Quarrier St., Charleston.


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