Hampshire fires Mezzatesta
ROMNEY -- Former House of Delegates Education Committee Chairman Jerry Mezzatesta was fired from his school job Friday, putting a likely end to a 36-year education career that saw him rise from a history teacher to one of the most powerful politicians in West Virginia.
After a six-hour disciplinary hearing, Hampshire school board members voted unanimously to dismiss Mezzatesta from his $60,000-a-year job as "community specialist."
Board members concluded that Mezzatesta improperly solicited state education grants for Hampshire schools, defying an order they had given him seven years ago when he was hired as a board office administrator. The board also alleged that Mezzatesta took part in the misappropriation of a state grant.
Earlier this week, Mezzatesta was indicted on a misdemeanor charge that he lied to the state Ethics Commission about his grant work.
"The board was quite clear that he was not to solicit grants, and he did it anyway," said Larry Schultz, a lawyer for Hampshire schools. "The light at the end of the tunnel is finally out there for this Board of Education. A few months ago, the tunnel seemed like it was going to go on forever."
Hampshire school employees hugged and celebrated late Friday afternoon outside the board meeting room after learning that Mezzatesta would no longer be working at the board office - effective immediately. Teachers, business owners and parents have been calling on Hampshire board members to fire Mezzatesta for nearly a year.
"This is a big step in the right direction," said Candy Canan, vice president of the Hampshire County Education Association. "Today, closure begins.
"This whole episode has brought about a huge division in our community. Because of that, the focus hasn't been on what it should be, and that is the children."
Two school board member wiped tears from their eyes as they cast their votes to fire Mezzatesta.
"It was a hard decision, but I felt we had to do what was right," said Hampshire board member Linda Baker.
Mezzatesta's attorney plans to file an appeal with the state grievance board, which reviews employee disciplinary matters.
"There was no basis for the termination," said Deirdre Purdy, a Charleston lawyer. "It was wrong."
About 20 people - critics and supporters of Mezzatesta - waited at the board office throughout the day for the school board's decision. Some peaked through a small window to watch Mezzatesta's hearing behind closed doors. By lunchtime, school board members ordered that copy paper be taped across the window.
Stan Hopkins, an assistant superintendent with the state Department of Education, said he told Hampshire board members that $35,000 of a $75,000 grant given to Hampshire County was misspent.
The money was initially intended for a Romney sheltered workshop that serves some Hampshire special education students. Instead, Mezzatesta had much of the money diverted to volunteer fire departments and Capon Bridge Library in Hampshire County.
"I reiterated the findings of our audit team that $35,000 of that grant was misappropriated," Hopkins said after testifying Friday. "They're going to have to pay it back."
Schultz questioned Hopkins about a letter sent to the state Department of Education from Hampshire schools Superintendent David Friend, asking Hopkins for permission to redirect the grant money. The letter was faxed from Mezzatesta's office at the Capitol. Friend's signature on the letter doesn't match his signatures on other documents. Hopkins was asked about the discrepancy.
"I told them I'm not a handwriting expert," Hopkins said.
David Pancake, executive director of the Hampshire County Economic Development Authority, also spoke to school board members about the $75,000 grant. The grant money was funneled through the development authority before being sent to the fire departments.
"I have never felt there was a problem with the way that money was spent," Pancake said Friday afternoon.
On Tuesday, a special Hampshire County grand jury indicted Mezzatesta on a misdemeanor charge that he "knowingly and intentionally" lied on a affidavit that he gave to the Ethics Commission last year.
In the sworn statement, Mezzatesta told the commission that he never solicited state education grants for Hampshire schools.
Last year, Mezzatesta and his wife were convicted of destroying and altering legislative computer records at the State Capitol amid a cover-up. Mary Lou Mezzatesta admitted that she dictated a phony letter to the Ethics Commission to ward off allegations that her husband lied.
Mezzatesta was removed as House Education committee chairman and later lost re-election.
Last spring, two ethics complaints were filed against Mezzatesta, alleging he improperly used his influence to solicit state Department of Education grants.
In 1999, Mezzatesta promised the Ethics Commission he would not use his powerful legislative position to request state education grants for Hampshire schools.
During the ethics agency's investigation last year, Mezzatesta submitted an affidavit, saying, "I have never solicited any grants for the Hampshire County board."
To contact staff writer Eric Eyre, use e-mail or call 348-4869.