MEZZATESTA GAVE $75,000 SCHOOL GRANT TO FIRE DEPARTMENTS - "Considers Education Dollars His Own Private Slush Fund"

By Dianne Weaver

Hampshire County schools will be asked to return $75,000 in state Department of Education grant money unless they can prove it was spent on education-related projects and programs, says West Virginia schools Superintendent David Stewart.

House Education Committee Chairman Jerry Mezzatesta, D-Hampshire, steered the bulk of the $75,000 grant money to volunteer fire departments in Hampshire County during this election year.

"Jerry Mezzatesta's behavior indicates he considers education dollars his own private slush fund," said Linda Martin, who directs a community-based schools reform group called Challenge West Virginia. "He ought to be held accountable."

Mezzatesta requested the $75,000 grant in March 2003, violating an agreement he made with the Ethics Commission that he would not seek such education grants using his position with the state legislature.

Mezzatesta, besides being a member of the House of Delegates, works as a "community specialist/grant writer" for the Hampshire County School Board.

Dr. David Stewart said "The burden of proof is on them (Hampshire County schools). Tell us what you spent it on, and we'll evaluate whether they spent it on what they're supposed to." The school system recently gave a vote of support to Mezzatesta.

"We were told it was 'Mezzatesta money,'" said Allen Hott of the Hampshire Fair Association, who got part of the money.

Hampshire County school officials have said the volunteer fire departments plan to spend the education grant money on equipment and "major disaster and homeland security" training related to Homeland Security.

However, federal Homeland Security money is being distributed to West Virginia counties today.

The Ethics Commission is currently investigating complaints that Mezzatesta used his influence to solicit grants for Hampshire County schools, and that he "double-dipped" by collecting his legislative pay and school board office salary at the same time.

Mezzatesta, who is known for "power playing" in the legislature, became outraged at Linda Martin of Challenge WV when she was giving a report on the failure of consolidated schools to the legislature's Education Committee. The delegate sought capitol security officers to have her removed from the hearing, indicating she was threatening him.

Martin, who has long been involved in the political process, said she was baffled at his behavior.

Mezzatesta, who has reportedly obtained several hundreds of thousands of Budget Digest money for his county, has declined to comment on the grant.