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.