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Records contradict Mezzatesta

The state Ethics Commission mostly took House Education Chairman Jerry Mezzatesta at his word when the panel dismissed two ethics complaints against him last week.

But public documents contradict Mezzatesta's statements to the commission and the reasons agency officials gave for abruptly ending an investigation.

Ethics Commission officials, for instance, concluded that Mezzatesta could legally collect two taxpayer-funded paychecks at the same time because he continues to work as a "community specialist/grant writer" for Hampshire County schools while attending legislative sessions.

Records show, however, that Mezzatesta takes paid "professional leave" from his Hampshire board office job when he attends legislative sessions.

Mezzatesta has taken at least 65 paid professional leave days since July and 70 days the previous year - about one of every three days he's supposed to be at work, according to documents obtained by the Gazette under the Freedom of Information Act.

School employees normally take such leave to attend conferences and seminars.

"We have no records he took professional leave," Lew Brewer, Ethics Commission executive director, said Monday. "We were told something different. He says he's still working while he's in the Legislature."

Those who filed the ethics complaints said Monday that Mezzatesta's decision to take paid professional leave shows that he wasn't working two separate jobs - only getting paid twice for the same work.

"If he's doing both jobs, why would he need to take professional leave?" said Tifney Terry, a former Kanawha County school board candidate who filed a complaint against Mezzatesta. "If you're taking professional leave, you're not doing your job."

The commission hired a $40-per-hour retired Internal Revenue Service agent to conduct the Mezzatesta investigation. The investigator, John Weaver, drove to Hampshire County during the probe, but apparently didn't retrieve Mezzatesta's pay records.

Brewer said Monday he would not reopen the investigation.

"Taking professional leave isn't prohibited by the ethics law," Brewer said. "We have no authority to second-guess when he's allowed to take leave."

Mezzatesta praised the Ethics Commission's decision Monday.

"I am confident the commission looked into every corner of the code in both ethical as well as legal terms in the investigation which found that I did nothing wrong," he said in a news release. "I am not surprised with the decision because I have always conducted my legislative and other professional activities in a manner consistent with the law and in the highest professional standards."

Mezzatesta gets about $60,000 a year as a community specialist/grant writer, and another $24,000 in legislative pay.

No other West Virginia school employee who also serves in the Legislature collects two paychecks simultaneously. Nor do the school employees/legislators take paid professional leave during legislative sessions. They take unpaid leave.

Last week, the Ethics Commission also dismissed a second complaint that accused Mezzatesta of improperly soliciting grants from the state Department of Education.

Brewer told Terry on Wednesday that more than a year had passed between the time Mezzatesta solicited a Department of Education grant and when Terry filed her complaint, according to Terry. State ethics law includes a one-year statute of limitations.

Department of Education employees have said that Mezzatesta asked in February that a $75,000 grant be diverted to emergency service agencies in Hampshire County.

Department of Education officials approved the request in early February, after receiving a letter from Hampshire schools Superintendent David Friend. The letter was sent from Mezzatesta's fax machine at the Capitol.

The grant was originally intended for a sheltered workshop in Romney. The bulk of the money eventually went to volunteer fire departments in Hampshire County - at Mezzatesta's request.

Brewer said Monday that Hampshire County schools served only as a "pass through," and that Mezzatesta wasn't using his position to benefit Hampshire County schools - even though the sheltered workshop serves Hampshire County High special education students.

"It's something other than getting money for his employer," Brewer said. "That money never went to Hampshire schools or a school program. If the money went to a public agency other than the one for which it was intended, that is not something we have control over."

Brewer said he also never spoke to Department of Education Finance Director Joe Panetta about Hampshire school grants. Mezzatesta normally talks to Panetta about such grants before speaking to state schools Superintendent David Stewart.

"It's foolish to believe that Jerry Mezzatesta didn't have anything to do with it," said Gary Abernathy, executive director of the state Republican Party, which also filed a complaint against Mezzatesta. "He has a stranglehold on education across the state."

Brewer also dismissed allegations that Mezzatesta had helped to solicit a $70,000 Department of Education grant that paid for a Hampshire schools finance department audit.

Brewer said Stewart and Friend, the Hampshire schools superintendent, told him that Mezzatesta didn't solicit the grant.

Only two members of the 11-member Ethics Commission reviewed the complaints against Mezzatesta and the investigation's subsequent findings.

Mara Watson, a former state Democratic Party Executive Committee member, and John Turak, an Ohio County lawyer, served on the panel that dismissed the charges against Mezzatesta.

The other commissioners are John Charnock Jr., Jack Blair and Bradley Crouser, all of Kanawha County; Kemp Morton and Ronald Salmons, both of Cabell County; Kathleen Aderholt of Ohio County; Charles Logan of Berkeley County; and Drema Radford and Jim Shepherd, both of Raleigh County.

Abernathy said the Ethics Commission was too eager to find reasons to dismiss the complaints against Mezzatesta.

"They're just not going to take action against this guy," Abernathy said.

Mezzatesta and his lawyer said the Ethics Commission's findings put the matter to rest.

"I know that the investigation was a thorough one," Mezzatesta said, "and that the findings of the investigation have exonerated me so that I can continue to do the job for which I was elected."


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