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Fake letter plagued Mezzatesta

The calls from Delegate Jerry Mezzatesta wouldn't stop.

The two House Education Committee employees fielded Mezzatesta's cell phone calls early in the morning, late at night, time after time, through crime, cover-up and investigation.

Mezzatesta called the two women shortly before they met with investigators, and then again moments afterward. He even called once while one of his employees sat with an investigator and revealed the details of an elaborate scheme.

Mezzatesta wanted to know what his staff members were telling investigators. He wanted to make sure they were "all right with the story" - that a letter he had used to refute ethical misconduct allegations was authentic, according to statements obtained by the Sunday Gazette-Mail last week.

Shelda Howard, a part-time House Education Committee employee, recalled dozens of calls that Mezzatesta and his wife made to her last summer.

But it was the call she received on July 13 that most upset her.

At first, Mezzatesta asked about her children, who were sick with meningitis. But then he switched the subject. He was thanking her, complimenting her. That same day, a news report was published about a letter Howard had typed, a letter that essentially cleared Mezzatesta of any wrongdoing, a letter that ultimately was found to be a fake.

"I just want you to know, you're part of my family now," Mezzatesta told Howard, according to an affidavit she gave investigators.

Howard hung up, went straight to the bathroom, and vomited.

'Sometimes we have to do things we don't like to do'

The newly released statements from House Education office workers show that Mezzatesta and his wife were confident, cocky and controlling throughout an investigation last summer.

At one point, Mary Lou Mezzatesta told House Education legislative assistant Melinda Ryan Swagger that they shouldn't worry about House Speaker Bob Kiss taking disciplinary action against them.

"Mary Lou had convinced [Swagger] that everything was fine as Speaker Kiss had also done things wrong and that she and Jerry knew about them," according to Swagger's statement.

Howard's and Swagger's statements to investigators, along with statements from eight other state employees, were obtained by the Sunday Gazette-Mail last week. Howard and Swagger declined to comment for this article.

Last summer, Kiss released summaries of the interviews as part of an 80-page investigative report. But he declined requests from the newspaper and fellow legislators to turn over the witnesses' unedited comments.

Howard and Swagger didn't tell the entire story of the fake letter until they met with investigators three times, the statements show. They admitted that they lied to Kiss.

The statements also show that House Education employees believed that Mezzatesta knew about the fake letter as early as the day it was written. Howard and Swagger had talked to one another and wondered, "When is he going to step up to the plate and tell the truth?" Howard told investigators.

Meanwhile, the Mezzatestas seemed unconcerned about Howard's and Swagger's physical problems, which, they told the Mezzatestas, were brought on by their participation in the cover-up.

Swagger complained to the Mezzatestas that the scheme was making her sick. She was stressed out, spitting up blood.

Mary Lou Mezzatesta told her to "take four Zantacs a day, and that Delegate Marshall Long, [D-Mercer], had recommended this."

Jerry Mezzatesta advised her to resign.

"Sometimes we have to do things that we don't like to do," he said, according to Swagger's statement. "But if it's for the right purpose, there's nothing wrong with it."

On Nov. 29, Mezzatesta and his wife were fined $500 and sentenced to 90 days' probation after pleading no contest to misdemeanor charges that they destroyed and altered computer records related to the fabricated letter. Mezzatesta, a nine-term legislator, was defeated in the November general election by a Republican newcomer. His last day in office was Dec. 1.

The Mezzatestas have repeatedly declined to comment to the media about the investigation and their plea agreement.

Secretary believed delegate wanted letter 're-created'

At 7:13 on the morning of July 1, Shelda Howard was driving to work at the state Capitol from her Boone County home when her cell phone rang. It was Jerry Mezzatesta, and he wanted her to find a letter.

He wanted the letter to refute a Charleston Gazette story published that morning. Howard recalled that Mezzatesta was "confident, even cocky" during the conversation. He wanted to embarrass the Gazette reporter who wrote the article, Howard told investigators.

"I'll have that son of a bitch this time," Mezzatesta told Howard, according to her statement.

The Gazette article was about a letter that West Virginia schools Superintendent David Stewart sent to Mezzatesta in January 2003. In the letter, Stewart confirmed a telephone conversation during which Mezzatesta had requested a $100,000 grant from the state Department of Education.

Last spring, Mezzatesta had spent months denying that he ever solicited grants from Stewart. He had promised the state Ethics Commission he wouldn't solicit grants from Stewart after he was hired as a Hampshire County school board office administrator in 1999.

In April, the state Republican Party and two Charleston women filed an ethics complaint against Mezzatesta. They alleged the powerful legislator had solicited a grant. The Ethics Commission launched an investigation. In June, the agency concluded that Mezzatesta had never solicited grant money from Stewart.

But now there was the letter from Stewart, and Mezzatesta told Swagger that July 1 morning to find a letter he allegedly sent in response the previous year. Mezzatesta's letter supposedly said that Stewart misunderstood him, that he wasn't requesting money.

Howard arrived at the House Education Committee office at 8:30 a.m. No one else was working in the office that day. The phone was ringing. It was Mezzatesta. Did she find the letter?

Howard searched through file cabinets. She logged onto office computers.

Mezzatesta called again. He told her to look in Swagger's filing cabinet. He told her to look in House Education Vice Chairman Larry Williams' files.

Mezzatesta became more frantic with each call, Howard recalled. At one point, Howard called Mezzatesta's wife and told her to ask Mezzatesta to leave her alone.

Mary Lou Mezzatesta was on the speaker phone.

"You know what we're going to have to do," Mary Lou Mezzatesta told Howard, according to Howard's statement. "I have never seen Jerry this mad. We are going to have to type the letter. Can you handle this?"

Howard told Mary Lou Mezzatesta that she could. Mary Lou Mezzatesta dictated the letter. Howard typed. She read the letter back to Mary Lou. She signed off the letter with "Respectfully, Jerry L. Mezzatesta."

Moments later, Jerry Mezzatesta was calling Howard again. He told Howard to deliver the letter to House of Delegates lawyer Richard Lindroth, who represented Mezzatesta during the Ethics Commission investigation.

Mezzatesta also ordered Howard to put a copy in Williams' file. At no time did Mezzatesta ask her where she had found the letter.

"That led me to perceive he knew the letter had been re-created," Howard said in her affidavit.

'It was vintage Mezzatesta'

At 10:15 that same morning, Mezzatesta was on talk radio, blasting the media and denying he had ever asked for state education grant money.

Mezzatesta had agreed to the interview a week earlier. He spoke on the phone from his Hampshire school board office, where he works as a "community specialist."

MetroNews Talkline host Hoppy Kercheval peppered Mezzatesta with questions about Stewart's January 2003 letter. He read an excerpt from Stewart's letter on the air.

"Would you like to have the letter we sent back?" Mezzatesta responded. "Nobody's asked me this, Hoppy. We sent a letter back three days later to him, that, Dr. Stewart, evidently you misunderstood.

"But I wasn't even going to tell you that," Mezzatesta went on. "I was going to wait till later in the show. But that wouldn't make good press. That would be page six."

After a short commercial break, Mezzatesta started talking about what he was doing in his office during the talk radio interview.

"Guess what I'm doing right now?" he said. "Well, I'll tell you that while I've been talking to you, I've been sitting here writing two letters, and guess what? I've been doing my part-time job as a legislator, talking to you and I've been sitting here writing two letters I have to get out this afternoon. I can do two jobs at the same time. And I had my wife on my cell phone in between, checking what was going on at the House of Delegates."

Mezzatesta concluded the interview, saying, "I haven't done anything wrong."

"He was anxious to come on the program and talk," Kercheval recalled last week. "It was vintage Mezzatesta. Jerry was a guy quick with a quote and he wasn't going to back down from a fight or argument."

Later that day, Mezzatesta called Swagger again. This time, he told her to put another copy of the letter in House Education Committee staff member David Mohr's file cabinet. Howard found that directive "strange" since Mezzatesta's correspondence was never filed with Mohr.

Several days later, Mary Lou Mezzatesta called Swagger and told her to remove the letter from Mohr's file cabinet.

Kiss shocked by secretary's statement

The calls kept coming, and the lying started.

The Sunday Gazette-Mail and House Speaker Kiss were raising questions about the Jan. 13, 2003, letter Lindroth had hand-delivered to Kiss and the Ethics Commission. For one thing, it was on stationery with letterhead that didn't exist at the time it was supposedly written. The letter also had typographical errors. And it was signed, "Respectfully."

Mezzatesta nearly always signed off his correspondence with "Sincerely."

Kiss called Swagger and Howard to his office. He showed them the letter. They lied, told him it was genuine. They both worried that Mezzatesta would fire them. At least once, the Mezzatestas accompanied them when they spoke to Kiss.

On Aug. 9, Howard decided to tell Kiss the truth. She went to his law office in Charleston to meet him in private.

"Speaker Kiss appeared as though he could have fallen out of his chair," Howard told investigators.

A week later, Kiss removed Mezzatesta as House Education chairman. And Howard and Swagger were talking with investigators, telling them everything.


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