But a report, which Mezzatesta requested, showed the delegate's allegations were unfounded, records show.
"I tried to explain to Jerry that they weren't playing games, but he never really bought that," Panetta said. "He thought some of the counties were lying."
Mezzatesta also told Panetta he had crafted a bill to change the way the department distributes increased enrollment money, Panetta said. The bill was never introduced.
After legislators allocated the $1.9 million, Panetta and Stewart met with Mezzatesta and his legislative staff.
Panetta said he also spoke with a Senate Education Committee staff member who also approved Mezzatesta's change, since the bill originated in the House.
At the time, Panetta also endorsed the change, and urged those who challenged the new funding rules "to discuss the matter directly with Chairman Mezzatesta for further enlightenment," according an e-mail message he sent to state officials.
Last August, Browning sent Panetta an e-mail, saying, "I did not know that legislative education committee directives could supersede state law."
Panetta responded, "It is the position of this office that the funds appropriated by the Legislature were distributed in accordance with the language presented in the bill and the intent of the Legislature as clarified by legislative leaders."
Panetta's correspondence does not reveal that he challenged Mezzatesta at any time.
"Our feeling was it should have gone to all the counties because that's what the code reads," Panetta said last week. "The legislators never rewrote the code. If they had, this would have been different. I wanted to distribute the money to all 17 counties."
In December 2002, a month before Mezzatesta changed the funding criteria, the department distributed a separate $1.4 million appropriation equally to the 17 counties with increased enrollment, as state law requires.
The 11 counties left out of the second $1.9 million allocation wound up with about 33 percent of the money they normally get for increased enrollment. Hampshire and the Eastern Panhandle counties got nearly 100 percent.
Former Hampshire schools Treasurer Dale Hays said he was worried about balancing the county's budget after the first legislative appropriation. He spoke with Mezzatesta about it.
"Jerry said he was going to get all of it, the 100 percent," recalled Hays last week. "And he did. But I didn't know about any new criteria."
In January, the department released a $2 million legislative appropriation for increased enrollment, using the new criteria Mezzatesta selected.
No additional money has been allocated for counties with a one-year spike in enrollment.
The increased enrollment money helps counties pay for extra students within the same school year. The state distributes the bulk of county school funds based on student enrollment from the previous year.
The Ethics Commission is investigating complaints that Mezzatesta improperly used his influence to solicit grants for Hampshire County schools, and that he "double-dipped" by collecting his legislative pay and school board office salary simultaneously.
Mezzatesta makes about $60,000 a year as a "community specialist/grant writer" and another $24,000 annually in legislative pay.
Earlier this year, Mezzatesta steered the bulk of a $75,000 state grant to volunteer fire departments in Hampshire County. The money originally was intended for a sheltered workshop in Romney that serves some Hampshire County special education students.
Mezzatesta promised the Ethics Commission in 1999, when he was hired as a Hampshire board office administrator, that he would not solicit state agency grants.