Former House of Delegates Education Committee Chairman Jerry Mezzatesta has been indicted on a charge that he lied in an affidavit he gave to the state Ethics Commission amid an investigation.
A special grand jury in Hampshire County indicted Mezzatesta on a misdemeanor false swearing charge. The indictment alleges that Mezzatesta "knowingly and intentionally" lied under oath when he told the ethics agency he never solicited grants for Hampshire County schools, where he works as a board office administrator.
"With all the fervor surrounding this, we took it to a grand jury so the citizens of Hampshire County could decide Mr. Mezzatesta's fate," said Sgt. S.D. Reckart with the West Virginia State Police in Romney.
Mezzatesta's arraignment has been set for May 16 in Hampshire County Circuit Court.
A false swearing charge carries a maximum fine of $1,000 and a year in jail. The penalty also includes a lifelong ban on "holding any office of honor, trust or profit" in West Virginia.
"It's a misdemeanor," said Mezzatesta's attorney, Ben Bailey. "It sounds like much ado about not a lot."
Last year, Mezzatesta was convicted of destroying and altering computer records at the State Capitol. Mezzatesta's wife admitted that she dictated a phony letter that her husband gave to the Ethics Commission to ward off allegations that he lied to the agency. Mezzatesta was removed as House of Delegates Education Committee chairman and later lost re-election to a Republican newcomer.
Hampshire County school board members are expected to decide Friday morning whether to fire Mezzatesta from his $60,000-a-year job as "community specialist."
Mezzatesta's critics said the indictment, which was released by court officials on Wednesday, should provide Hampshire board members with another reason to dismiss Mezzatesta.
"For whatever reason, he doesn't want to admit any wrongdoing," said Candy Canan, vice president of the Hampshire County Education Association. "He has to be held fully accountable for everything he's done. This needs closure, but not until Jerry Mezzatesta has felt the full effects of the law."
Last spring, the state GOP and a state government watchdog group filed an ethics complaint against Mezzatesta, alleging that he improperly used his influence to solicit state Department of Education grants.
In 1999, Mezzatesta promised the Ethics Commission he would not use his legislative job to request state education grants for Hampshire schools.
During the ethics agency's investigation last year, Mezzatesta submitted an affidavit, saying "I have never solicited any grants for the Hampshire County board."
State schools Superintendent David Stewart and Hampshire schools Superintendent David Friend gave the commission similar sworn statements at Mezzatesta's request.
The Ethics Commission initially cleared Mezzatesta of any wrongdoing, but reopened an inquiry after The Charleston Gazette published a story about a 2003 letter Mezzatesta sent to Stewart soliciting department grant money for Hampshire schools.
In February, the Ethics Commission fined Mezzatesta $2,000 and gave him a public reprimand after agency investigators determined that Mezzatesta solicited a grant. Mezzatesta has refused to pay the fine.
State Police have been investigating Mezzatesta's affidavit since March. Mezzatesta signed the notarized statement in Hampshire County, which has jurisdiction in the matter.
"He knew when he signed that affidavit that it was false," said Wanda Carney, who filed an ethics complaint against the former lawmaker last year. "It's time for Mr. Mezzatesta to step up and take responsibility for his actions. Enough is enough. He needs to go."
Summers County Prosecuting Attorney Jim McNeely was assigned as special prosecutor to the Mezzatesta case. He declined comment Wednesday.
Hampshire County school administrators were directed on April 14 to return nearly half of a $75,000 state grant that Mezzatesta solicited.
A Department of Education consulting team determined that Hampshire school administrators misspent $35,000 in department grant money. Mezzatesta diverted the money to volunteer fire departments and the Capon Bridge Library in Hampshire County.
The money was initially intended for a sheltered workshop that served some Hampshire County special education students.
To contact staff writer Eric Eyre, use e-mail or call 348-4869.