Tuesday, November 30, 2004

The people win a small one

West Virginia has been a one-party state for as long as I can remember. Yes, the state frequently elects a Republican Governor, but Democrats dominate the legislature, the Supreme Court of Appeals and most county governments.

Now there’s nothing wrong with Democrats. Some really good people are Democrats. But when one party dominates for so long, it just isn’t healthy. So things start happening, and when someone ought to be called on the carpet for misbehaving, if they are part of the machine, the leaders either do not believe that there’s been mischief, or they just look the other way.

One-party politics inevitably eventually evolves into audaciousness, arrogance and overconfidence. So it was in West Virginia this year, as it has been for so long.

Jerry Mezzatesta (D-Hampshire) had been in the House of Delegates for 18 years, and had been Chairman of the Education Committee. He also worked for the Hampshire County Board of Education, a clear conflict of interest, given the Committee’s power to fund school systems. Del. Mezzatesta had signed a formal agreement to not help his employer get state funding.

But he indulged, allegedly, in a variety of improprieties, including securing funding for his employer, contrary to the agreement, and also redistributing state funds to counties contrary to the intent of the Education Committee. The result was that some counties got more than they were due, some counties got less, and some counties got nothing.

During the investigation that eventually was begun, a letter turned up that proved to have been faked and backdated to mislead the Ethics Commission. Four persons were involved in the incident, Mezzatesta and three Committee staffers, including his wife. Mezzatesta and his wife each plead no contest to altering and destroying legislative computer records. The misdemeanor charge carried a maximum penalty of up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

This case had great interest, due to Mezzatesta’s prior history of heavy-handedness, and partiality to certain parties at the expense of others. Prior to the sentencing, Candy Canan, a librarian from Hampshire County, asked Magistrate Carol Fouty to give Del. Mezzatesta the maximum sentence. "I find the actions of Mr. Mezzatesta to be repulsive and embarrassing to the citizens of the 51st District as well as the citizens of this state," Canan said. "The mere fact that Mr. Mezzatesta refuses to take accountability for his actions speaks volumes about his character. ... Send the message that corruption in our government will not go unpunished."

Fouty countered that Mezzatesta must have done something right during his 18 years in the Legislature or he would not have been re-elected numerous times. The Mezzatestas each received fines of $500, 90 days on probation and court costs of $123.50. He was also defeated for re-election in November.

After sentencing, Fouty shook hands with Mezzatesta and told the delegate, "It's a pleasure to meet you."

So goes politics in West Virginia.

But a victory is a victory, however small. And the people of West Virginia have been relieved of the burden of one corrupt politician. At least until the next election.


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