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Stewart backed Mezzatesta

West Virginia schools Superintendent David Stewart provided a sworn statement that helped House Education Committee Chairman Jerry Mezzatesta get an ethics complaint against him dismissed, according to documents released by the commission last week.

Stewart gave the affidavit to Mezzatesta's lawyer during an investigation into whether Mezzatesta improperly used his influence to secure state Department of Education grants for Hampshire County schools. Mezzatesta submitted Stewart's sworn statement to the Ethics Commission.

Stewart wrote that Mezzatesta has never spoken to him about a grant. Mezzatesta works as a community specialist/grant writer for the Hampshire school board.

"Jerry Mezzatesta has never solicited any grants from me, personally, at any time," Stewart said in the April 27 affidavit. "Nor has he ever attempted to influence me relative to making any grants."

Ethics Commission Executive Director Lew Brewer said last week that the agency dismissed complaints against Mezzatesta, in part, because of Stewart's affidavit and statements the superintendent made to investigators during a subsequent interview.

Mezzatesta's critics said it is not surprising that Stewart defended Mezzatesta, since the lawmaker pushed to raise the superintendent's salary cap to $200,000 during the last legislative session.

Stewart stood to become the fifth-highest-paid state schools chief in the nation. The House of Delegates passed the $60,000 pay hike, but the Senate Finance Committee rejected it.

In February, Mezzatesta gave an impassioned speech on the House of Delegates floor, urging Stewart to reconsider an earlier decision to resign. Mezzatesta's remarks prompted fellow legislators to give Stewart a standing ovation. Stewart agreed to stay for another two years.

"The affidavit is a cover-up for all sides," said Wanda Carney, a former radio talk-show host who has started a state government watchdog group called West Virginia Wants to Know. "Mezzatesta led the charge to keep Dave Stewart in place."

Stewart said he did not take sides in the Mezzatesta investigation.

He said Mezzatesta's lawyers submitted a proposed affidavit for him to sign. He said he and Department of Education lawyers revised the statement before allowing Mezzatesta to submit it to the Ethics Commission.

"This doesn't support anybody," Stewart said. "It just says what happened. It was my intention to say what I know. It's a mere statement of facts."

In the affidavit, Stewart said The Charleston Gazette incorrectly reported the date he discussed a Department of Education grant with Hampshire County schools Superintendent David Friend. Mezzatesta attended the meeting, but did not speak about the grant, Stewart said last week. The meeting at the Hampshire school board office occurred last December, not in March as the newspaper reported.

Stewart said he did not notify the newspaper about the error because he considered it "minor."

The $70,000 grant helped pay for an audit of the Hampshire school system's finance department.

Stewart said Friday that Mezzatesta talked to him months earlier about the need for the audit, but never solicited a grant to pay for it.

Stewart acknowledged that Mezzatesta has spoken about grants with Department of Education administrators, including Office of School Finance Executive Director Joe Panetta.

Ethics Commission officials did not interview Panetta during their investigation.

"Where's Joe Panetta's affidavit?" Carney said. "Wouldn't you like to have a copy of that one?"

Brewer said the Ethics Commission was unaware that Mezzatesta requested grants through Panetta.

"Nobody identified him as someone who would have any knowledge of the events we were investigating," Brewer said. "The trail never led to Panetta."

Panetta was at a conference last week and unavailable for comment.

In 1999, Mezzatesta promised the Ethics Commission that he would not solicit grants from "any state agency."

Last April, Mezzatesta provided a sworn statement to the Ethics Commission, saying, "I have never solicited any grants for the Hampshire County Board."

Mezzatesta's job description requires him "to explore and secure resources for county grants from federal, private and philanthropic agencies." It is the first of four job duties listed on the job description.

Friend strongly defended Mezzatesta and lashed out at the Gazette in the affidavit he provided to the Ethics Commission.

"The Charleston Gazette knowingly and intentionally reported and repeated a story which they knew to be false and untrue, solely to engage in a character assassination of Jerry Mezzatesta," Friend wrote.

Friend also supported Mezzatesta's assertions that the delegate can legally collect two taxpayer-funded paychecks at the same time. Mezzatesta draws his school administrator salary while also getting legislative pay during regular and special sessions. He makes $60,000 annually from his school job and about $24,000 per year as a legislator.

"Jerry Mezzatesta works hard for the moneys he receives as salary, and is generally reputed to be a workaholic," Friend said in the affidavit.

Mezzatesta said he works eight to 10 hours every night and 12 to 16 hours on weekends during legislative sessions, according to his affidavit.

Last month, the Ethics Commission gave the green light for Mezzatesta to continue the double-payment practice.

Mezzatesta's attendance records show that he takes paid "professional leave" when he is working in the Legislature. Ethics investigators said they did not retrieve those records during the investigation.

The Hampshire County school board plans to discuss Mezzatesta's job duties at a meeting Tuesday.

"When all this started to break, Mr. Mezzatesta was a grant writer," said Tifney Terry, a former Kanawha County School Board candidate who filed one of two ethics complaints against Mezzatesta. "Now the position keeps changing."

Mezzatesta repeatedly has declined to discuss the ethics complaints with the newspaper.


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