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Probe: Letter fabricated

Former House Education Chairman Jerry Mezzatesta took part in an elaborate scheme to fend off allegations that he lied to the state Ethics Commission and Kanawha County prosecutor, according to a report released Thursday.

On July 1 of this year, Mezzatesta's wife, Mary Lou, directed a House employee to fabricate a January 2003 letter that purportedly showed that her husband did not improperly solicit state Department of Education grants, according to the report. The grants were for Hampshire schools, where Mezzatesta works as an administrator.

At a press conference Thursday, House Speaker Bob Kiss apologized to the "citizens of West Virginia, the press and other governmental agencies." He said Mezzatesta's fake letter misled the public and investigators.

The 90-page report, prepared by House Judiciary and Finance committee lawyers, has been sent to the Ethics Commission and Kanawha County Prosecuting Attorney Mike Clifford.

"I have been here for 16 years, and I feel very strongly about this: This is an aberration, not a norm," said Kiss, who launched the investigation a month ago. "But if it happens once in 16 years or once in 100 years, that's too often."

Investigators said they found no evidence that Mezzatesta orchestrated the alleged cover-up.

But Mezzatesta and his wife hounded two House employees for weeks, calling them repeatedly and pressuring them to tell investigators and Kiss the letter was authentic, the employees told investigators.

At one point, Mezzatesta ordered an employee to download the entire state code related to education onto House Education Committee computers "to make it hard for the letter to be found," according to the report.

Another employee told investigators she "felt great pressure from the Mezzatestas to continue the deception."

After initially lying to Kiss and investigators about the letter, House employee Shelda Howard said Mezzatesta called her at home and told her, "Now, you are one of my family," according to the report.

Howard said she became "physically ill" after the conversation.

In July, Mezzatesta told House Education staff members, "Sometimes things leave a bad taste in your mouth that you have to do, but as long as it is for something good, it's OK to do so," Howard said.

Kiss removed Mezzatesta as House Education chairman last month after Howard and another employee, Melinda Swagger, spoke with investigators.

When reached on his wife's cell phone Thursday evening, Mezzatesta referred questions to his lawyer, Richard Lindroth, and hung up. Earlier this week, Mezzatesta announced he had prostate cancer.

In a written statement contained in the report, Mezzatesta denied any wrongdoing.

The fake Jan. 13, 2003, letter - and another allegedly fabricated document - was printed on stationery with letterhead that didn't exist at the time the documents were allegedly written.

"At no time did I fabricate either of these letters, nor did I ever order or instruct anyone to do so," Mezzatesta said in his statement.

He told investigators that he didn't find out about the fabricated letters until mid-August, more than a month after his wife dictated them - a statement that Mary Lou Mezzatesta confirmed.

Mezzatesta also alleged that a state investigator had a "close personal relationship" with Howard, jeopardizing the integrity of the investigation, according to his statement.

Mary Lou Mezzatesta admitted to investigators that she dictated the fabricated letter, which was dated Jan. 13, 2003, but written on July 1, 2004, according to Thursday's report. She originally told investigators that House employees Howard and Swagger orchestrated the "conspiracy."

Mary Lou Mezzatesta, who works as a part-time House Education office assistant, told investigators that she ordered Howard to create the fake letter to "shut up" a Charleston Gazette reporter who was writing stories about her husband.

On July 1, Mrs. Mezzatesta said she called Howard and demanded that she find a copy of a January 2003 letter her husband had allegedly written to West Virginia Schools Superintendent David Stewart.

But Howard couldn't find the letter.

Mary Lou Mezzatesta, who was in Romney at the time, also called Howard and said she "had never seen [her husband] so mad" and that "she could not calm Jerry down," according to the report.

Later, Mary Lou Mezzatesta told her, "We are going to have to type the letter. Can you handle this?" Howard told investigators.

That same day, Mezzatesta called the employee and directed her to file a copy of the letter in Delegate Larry Williams' office, Howard told investigators. Williams is vice chairman of the House Education Committee.

Mary Lou Mezzatesta later ordered Howard to put copies of the fabricated letter in file cabinets throughout the House Education office, according to the report.

She also directed Swagger to download numerous documents onto her House office computer, "delete them, then periodically defragment the drive, repeating the process more than once," Swagger told investigators.

"Mrs. Mezzatesta stated that she received advice on this process from relatives with degrees in computer science," according to the report.

Investigators never found an electronic copy of the fake letter.

Howard and Swagger initially lied to Kiss and investigators, but later detailed the scheme, according to the report.

Howard said she felt "compelled to lie" at one point because Mezzatesta and his wife were in the room when she first met with Kiss.

The two women said they received repeated calls from Mezzatesta and his wife. Mary Lou Mezzatesta also came to her house late at night, informing her "what Mrs. Mezzatesta's story was going to be, which was that Delegate Mezzatesta knew nothing about the creation of the letter."

Mary Lou Mezzatesta repeatedly called her husband during the late-night visits, the women said.

According to the report, Lindroth, Mezzatesta's lawyer, delivered copies of the fabricated letter to Stewart, Clifford and the Ethics Commission on July 1.

Lindroth, who also serves as Kiss' lawyer, told investigators that he didn't know the letter was a fake.

Two House computer technicians told investigators that Lindroth peppered them with questions about deleting and recovering files from a computer after the Gazette requested his computer files last summer.

Investigators also interviewed Williams, who has told Ethics Commission lawyers and the media that Mezzatesta's fabricated letter is authentic.

When asked if Mezzatesta had asked him to concoct a story related to the letter, Williams told investigators, "No. I don't think he'd do that."

Kiss declined to answer questions during Thursday's press conference.

House officials would not say whether disciplinary action would be taken against Mary Lou Mezzatesta and the other state employees.

Delegate Bonnie Brown, D-Kanawha, said Mezzatesta's actions have "tainted" the Legislature.

"This has been trying not only for the speaker, but for all of us," Brown said Thursday.

Meanwhile, state GOP Executive Director Gary Abernathy called the House employee statements against Mezzatesta "devastating." He said Kiss should recommend that Mezzatesta be impeached.

"The letter was a fake, and Mezzatesta lied," Abernathy said. "But I've heard nothing from the speaker beyond, 'I'm sorry.' "

A copy of the report is available at: www.legis.state.wv. us/MEZZATESTA-ALL.pdf.


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