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Former W.Va. delegate enters not guilty plea

October 04, 2006|by MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Former West Virginia Del. Jerry L. Mezzatesta and former Hampshire County schools Superintendent David E. Friend entered not guilty pleas Tuesday to federal charges of conspiracy to defraud the school board and misappropriating public funds.

Mezzatesta and Friend, both 59, appeared in Martinsburg before U.S. Magistrate David J. Joel, who set a $15,000 bond for each case. Joel released the men on their own recognizance. A trial date was set for Dec. 12. If convicted, each could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison and fined as much as $500,000.

"We're looking forward to having a jury tell us whether a state legislator working with a state department to get money for volunteer fire departments is a crime," Mezzatesta's attorney, Deirdre H. Purdy of Charleston, W.Va., said after the arraignment hearing.

Friend's attorneys, J. Michael Benninger and Wes Metheney of Morgantown, W.Va., deferred comment until after reviewing the government's evidence through discovery procedures.

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A federal grand jury in Martinsburg on Sept. 19 charged Mezzatesta of Romney, W.Va, and Friend of Rowlesburg, W.Va., with conspiring to misapply public funds between January 2004 and June 2005, Acting U.S. Attorney Rita Valdrini announced last month.

The charges stem from a $75,000 grant that Mezzatesta, a nine-term lawmaker, sought in March 2003 for the Special Services Workshop in Hampshire County, according to the indictment. Mezzatesta had agreed not to use his legislative office to seek money for the Hampshire County school system, where he was employed as an administrator from 1999 to January 2005, according to the indictment.

The federal government has jurisdiction in the action taken against Mezzatesta and Friend because the Board of Education of Hampshire County receives more than $10,000 in federal funds each year, according to the indictment.

At a political rally on Feb. 20, 2004, Mezzatesta gave a speech, telling members of the audience that he understood the needs of local agencies. He then called on various representatives of the agencies and gave them money meant for adult education, training or training-related equipment, according to the indictment.

"This failure resulted in the education funds being spent for whatever each agency deemed appropriate with little of the money being spent on adult education or training," according to the indictment.

The indictment alleges Mezzatesta diverted the money "with an intent to derive an advantage ... in his effort to be re-elected'' in 2004, according to the indictment.

Mezzatesta, a Democrat and former House Education Committee chairman, lost his race.

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