After a slide from grace as the powerful House Education chairperson, with numerous ethics and criminal charges behind him, Jerry Mezzatesta was acquitted yesterday of federal charges he defrauded the Hampshire County school system.

Also acquitted was former school superintendent David Friend.

"This has been a witch hunt," Mezzatesta's attorney, Deirdre H. Purdy, said after the verdict was returned in U.S. District Court in Martinsburg.

Mezzatesta and Friend were each charged with defrauding the Hampshire County Board of Education and conspiring to misapply public funds, related to diverting part of a $75,000 education grant to local fire departments.

The diversion happened when Mezzatesta was running for re-election. He was not returned to his post.

The nine-term legislator originally sought the grant in 2003 for the Special Services Workshop in Romney.

David Pancake, executive director of the Hampshire County Development Authority, testified the workshop did not qualify for the grant.

In April 2005, the state ordered the Hampshire board to return $35,000.

That same month, Hampshire County fired Mezzatesta from his $60,000 administrative job, a job he held while being a member of the West Virginia legislature for several years.