Mezzatesta's letter to Ethics might have discrepancy
An 18-month-old letter that House Education Committee Chairman Jerry Mezzatesta released last month to support his statements that he didn't solicit state Department of Education grants was printed on stationery that didn't exist at the time the letter was allegedly written.
The Jan. 13, 2003, letter, which was addressed to state schools Superintendent David Stewart, appears on letterhead that wasn't printed and shipped to Mezzatesta until Feb. 6, 2003.
Mezzatesta's lawyer submitted the letter to the state Ethics Commission in July amid growing criticism that Mezzatesta solicited state education grants.
In a prepared statement Monday, Mezzatesta denied any wrongdoing.
He said the letter apparently "sat idle for quite some time" until it could be copied onto the new stationery - "not an uncommon practice during a busy legislative session."
"The January 13, 2003, letter was not fabricated," said Mezzatesta. "I have nothing to hide."
Mezzatesta's critics called on Mezzatesta to resign immediately. They also urged Kanawha County Prosecuting Attorney Mike Clifford to step up his investigation into sworn statements Mezzatesta gave to the Ethics Commission.
"This letter was an attempt to deceive the Ethics Commission," said Tifney Terry, co-director of a state government watch group called West Virginia Wants to Know. "He was trying to put something out there to cover himself, and he slipped up."
Stewart has said that he doesn't recall ever receiving or reading the letter until July 1, the day Mezzatesta's attorney, Richard Lindroth, delivered it to the Department of Education.
Department employees scoured files last month but could not find an original copy of Mezzatesta's letter.
Lindroth, who also serves as House Speaker Bob Kiss' attorney, delivered a copy of the same letter to the Ethics Commission after The Charleston Gazette reported that Mezzatesta requested a $100,000 grant directly from Stewart.
In his news release, Mezzatesta said Monday that Delegate Larry Williams, D-Preston, witnessed Mezzatesta telling his secretary to write the letter to Stewart on Jan. 13, 2003. Mezzatesta said Williams also received a copy of the letter at the time.
At Mezzatesta's request, Williams met with Ethics Commission investigators last week.
Williams, who serves as vice chairman of Mezzatesta's committee, was working on his farm and could not be reached for comment Monday.
On Jan. 23, 2003, Mezzatesta requested that the Joint Committee on Government and Finance, a legislative committee he sits on, be added to his stationery, according a form he signed.
Mezzatesta's new stationery also added "House of Delegates, West Virginia Legislature" at the top.
The new stationery was ordered Jan. 28, 2003, and shipped to Mezzatesta Feb. 6 - 24 days after Mezzatesta allegedly wrote the letter to Stewart. A representative of Printing Press, which printed Mezzatesta's letterhead, confirmed the shipping date Monday.
Mezzatesta's news release mistakenly states that he received the new letterhead Jan. 28, 2003.
Mezzatesta also released a second January 2003 letter Monday that appears on stationery that didn't exist on the day he says the letter was written.
House Education Committee attorney Candace Kraus blacked out all names and addresses on the Jan. 27, 2003, letter. The form letter recommends an unidentified person for a job. The Gazette has requested a copy of the letter without deletions.
"Apparently, that letter also sat idle for a period, then was copied onto the new letterhead," Mezzatesta said.
No other letters were sent on the new stationery until September 2003, according to Mezzatesta's response to a state Freedom of Information Act request. Mezzatesta continued to use 2002 stationery until then.
"They probably never even cut open the new box of that stationery until they used the last piece of the old," Terry said.
Terry said she doesn't believe that the two January 2003 letters "sat idle" in Mezzatesta's office until the new stationery arrived.
The original word-processing files for those letters have been deleted, according to Mezzatesta's office staff.
In the Jan. 13, 2003, letter to Stewart, Mezzatesta wrote, "In previous conversations, I hope you realized I was not soliciting monies for my specific school district."
Mezzatesta was responding to a letter that Stewart had sent him 10 days earlier.
On Jan. 2, 2003, Stewart wrote to Mezzatesta, confirming a telephone conversation in which Mezzatesta allegedly requested a $100,000 state Department of Education grant.
In June, the Ethics Commission dismissed two complaints against Mezzatesta after Stewart told the commission that Mezzatesta never solicited grant money from him "personally," according to an affidavit Stewart provided at Mezzatesta's request.
Mezzatesta, who works as a "community specialist/administrative assistant," for the Hampshire County school board, also submitted a sworn statement saying he has never solicited grant money for his employer.
In 1999, Mezzatesta, D-Hampshire, promised the Ethics Commission he would not request Department of Education grant money for Hampshire schools after he was hired as a board office administrator.
Terry urged state investigators and the Ethics Commission to seize Mezzatesta's office computers.
"It's a shame people have subpoena power but are unwilling to use it," Terry said. "This is fabricated evidence amid an investigation. Anyway you hold this picture, it doesn't look good."