By Dianne Weaver

The Jerry Mezzatesta debacle may be coming to an end after state ethics charges were generally ignored and he was removed from the powerful chairmanship of the House Education Committee.

Further criminal charges were filed against Mezzatesta for faking letters that supported his case and he lost his re-election bid in Hampshire County. He and his wife stood before a Kanawha County court yesterday to face what many felt was watered-down charges.

Mezzatesta, who has served nine terms, and his wife Mary Lou, were placed on probation and fined $500 each after pleading no contest that they altered and deleted legislative records.

Kanawha County Prosecuting Attorney Mike Clifford said Mezzatesta's recent battle with prostate cancer and defeat in the fall election played on the prosecution.

Mezzatesta's "self-serving, ego-driven, tyrannical actions" have unfortunately been beyond the standards by which elected officials should be held accountable, largely supported by the house leadership with state education officials often buckling under Mezzatesta's pressure.

Candy Canan, Hampshire County school librarian and vice-president of the Hampshire County Education Association, called Mezzatesta's conduct "repulsive and embarrassing."

She said "The people of this state have suffered greatly during the course of this investigation. For Mr. Mezzatesta to blatantly disregard the expectations of his constituents is unacceptable."

But Hampshire County school officials stood by their man, who they employed for $60,000 in what became a double-dipping case. Mezzatesta had promised not to use his position to acquire state funds although his "bringing home the bacon" was humorously called "Mezz money."

Tifney Terry of West Virginia Want$ To Know plans to file a new ethics complaint against Mezzatesta and file a new complaint against Mezzatesta's wife. The complaint will allege that the Mezzatestas were doing private business on state House Education office computers for Viking Vending, an outfit that provides gambling services in the state. Mary Lou Mezzatesta worked part-time for her husband at the House Education office during legislative sessions.

Much of Mezzatesta's current status is the result of investigative reporting done by Charleston Gazette's Eric Eyre.

Last March Eyre revealed that the all-powerful chairman had thrown a tantrum, threatening to kill important legislation because the state's chief school inspector had suggested tougher audits. The state school board quickly caved in to Mezzatesta.

. Eyre disclosed that Mezzatesta was the only school employee in the Legislature who double-dipped, collecting both his legislative salary plus a $60,000 paycheck as a "grant writer" for the Hampshire County school system. Mezzatesta and his wife raked in more than $100,000 a year from taxpayers.

Eyre discovered that Mezzatesta did virtually no work for Hampshire schools, obvious that he had been hired for his political clout.

Eyre's reports said he not only obtained grants, but also manipulated the rules, taking cash from other counties and funneling it to Hampshire. He reported that Mezzatesta siphoned some of the school money to fire departments.

Under criticism, Mezzatesta threatened to move state agencies away from Charleston in retaliation, and tried to prevent West Virginia State College from becoming a university.

State Schools Superintendent David Stewart admitted he had made a mistake after he told the Ethics Commission that Mezzatesta never got state funds for his county — and the commission ruled Mezzatesta innocent.

Under duress, House Speaker Bob Kiss, D-Raleigh, ordered an investigation of the case and removed Mezzatesta as education chairman.

During this time, Mezzatesta and his wife produced fake letters in their defense.

The letters were delivered by legislative attorney Richard Lindroth, who is denying responsibility for 80 nude photos of teen-age girls found on his statehouse computer. The photos were released by Kanawha Prosecutor Mike Clifford, who said their discovery was not illegal.

This incident should be a serious wake-up call for the legislative leadership, not the least being a revamping of the State Ethics Commission. The legislature currently controls the purse strings of that agency.

While attending a House Education Committee hearing, it was my unfortunate experience to witness Mezzatesta in action. Mezzatesta became very angry while listening to testimony given by Challenge West Virginia coordinator Linda Martin over the state's proclivity to close and consolidate community schools.

After Mezzatesta asked Martin what she would do if the state does not agree with her, she indicated that the final recourse of citizens is 'to remember on election day.'

Mezzatesta, in his customary mode, became more angry, verbally lashed out at Martin, saying she had threatened him and indicated she should be removed.

Now, Martin's prediction has come true.

Mezzatesta has requested "duty day" pay of $1000 for this past Saturday, Sunday and Monday at $150 each day, including $115 in expenses for each of those days, and $192 for mileage to and from his home in Romney. There were no legislative meetings scheduled, but he did appear in court with his wife.