Former House of Delegates Education Chairman Jerry Mezzatesta was reprimanded and fined $2,000 Thursday after West Virginia Ethics Commission investigators determined that he improperly solicited grants and gave a fabricated letter to the commission.Mezzatesta received the ethics agency's maximum penalty.The commission initially cleared Mezzatesta of wrongdoing last spring, but reopened an investigation after the Gazette published a series of reports about Mezzatesta's grant requests. It was the first time the agency had reopened an inquiry in its 15-year history.Ethics Commission members said they were pleased to put the Mezzatesta probe behind them.
"It's in the best interest of the state to put this to rest," said Ethics Commission Chairman John Charnock Jr. "It's a big step. We've been subjected to a lot of criticism. Some warranted, some not. But the system works."The commission and Mezzatesta reached a "conciliation agreement," which permits the target of an ethics complaint to acknowledge that he violated the Ethics Act. By signing the agreement, Mezzatesta waived his right to a public hearing.Mezzatesta was fined $1,000 each for two ethics violations."While I could contest facts ... I have no desire to prolong these proceedings that have had such a heavy effect on my professional and personal life," Mezzatesta said in a statement to the commission.Investigators determined that Mezzatesta solicited special education grant money from state schools Superintendent David Stewart and former state Special Education Director Dee Braley during a telephone conference call in October 2003.
Four years earlier, the Ethics Commission had warned Mezzatesta that he should not use his powerful legislative position to solicit state grants for Hampshire schools, where he works as a school board administrator. Mezzatesta promised he wouldn't do so when he took the "community specialist" job.The ethics investigators also found that Mezzatesta directed his lawyer to hand-deliver a letter to the commission, hoping to fend off allegations that he had lied to the agency about his grant work.The letter was a fake. Mezzatesta's wife, Mary Lou, has admitted to dictating it."Jerry Mezzatesta has disgraced the West Virginia House of Delegates," said Tifney Terry, co-director of West Virginia Wants to Know, the group that filed two ethics complaints against Mezzatesta last year. "Mezzatesta is a documented liar, and this confirms it."In the agreement with the commission, Mezzatesta said, "As a member of the House of Delegates, I am responsible for the actions of my staff and others using the resources of my state office, and I accept the responsibility for the actions of those individuals who submitted the falsified letter to the commission."
Mezzatesta also acknowledged "that the remarks made during the course of these conversations [about the special education grant] could be construed as a solicitation of monies for the education of students by the Hampshire County Board of Education."
Mezzatesta was out of the office Thursday and unavailable for comment.In November, Mezzatesta was convicted of altering or destroying legislative computer records at the State Capitol as part of an alleged cover-up. The same month, the nine-term delegate was voted out of office.Last month, the state Board of Education declared a "state of emergency" in Hampshire schools, finding that Mezzatesta and Hampshire Superintendent David Friend misused state grants and took part in improper hiring practices.Mezzatesta continues to stay on the job and collect a $60,000 salary."The Ethics Commission finally held Mr. Mezzatesta accountable," said Candy Canan, vice president of the Hampshire County Education Association. "This was long overdue. Our board is going to have to determine Mr. Mezzatesta's future employment."Hampshire board members are expected to meet Monday night, but it's unclear whether they'll discuss Mezzatesta's fine and reprimand.
Ethics Commission Executive Director Lew Brewer said he recommended the maximum punishment for Mezzatesta because the former Hampshire County delegate held a powerful position in state government. Since 2000, the commission has imposed the maximum fine only three times.By signing the agreement, Mezzatesta avoided a public hearing during which Hampshire County and state Department of Education employees were expected to testify against him. If found guilty, Mezzatesta would have been ordered to pay the same fine that he received Thursday."By doing what we've done, we don't have to sit and wait for appeals," Brewer said. "This closes the matter for us."Mezzatesta might face additional criminal charges in Hampshire County, where a special prosecutor is investigating whether Mezzatesta submitted a false affidavit to the Ethics Commission last spring. In the sworn statement, Mezzatesta said he never solicited grants for Hampshire schools.Also Thursday, the ethics agency dismissed a complaint against Mezzatesta's wife, Mary Lou. Terry and her colleague Wanda Carney alleged that Mary Lou Mezzatesta used the House Education Committee office to run a private video poker machine company - Viking Vending - that she owns.Investigators determined that Mary Lou Mezzatesta, a former part-time House Education office assistant, used the House Education fax machine to send a company document to the state Lottery Commission. But Mary Lou Mezzatesta wasn't a state employee at the time, the commission investigation concluded.To contact staff writer Eric Eyre, use e-mail or call 348-4869.