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West Virginia knows what corruption is

West Virginia knows what corruption is

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Del. Phil Hamilton has earned nearly universal scorn in Virginia's political circles with the revelation that he worked out a deal to get a $40,000-a-year part-time job at a teaching center he helped win funding for as vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Even members of his own party are calling for his resignation.

As a former professional observer of West Virginia politics (it's merely an entertaining hobby these days), I've got one word for Hamilton: piker.

Virginia simply cannot match West Virginia's rich tradition of political corruption, though Hamilton gave it the best shot I've seen since I moved here in 2005.

How corrupt was West Virginia politics? Without thinking too hard, I can name two governors, two Senate presidents, a high-ranking delegate, a state schools superintendent and several county officials who resigned or went to prison after getting caught up in scandals.

Jim Haught, my old boss at The Charleston Gazette -- an investigative reporter back during some of the worst of the offenses -- used to regale me with stories of payoffs involving paper bags filled with cash transferred in parking lots in the dark of night while high-ranking elected officials crouched in back seats. According to the trial transcript from his first bribery trial, Gov. Arch Moore was found with $200,000 in cash in his desk.

By the time I got to West Virginia, the corruption had become less colorful and more mundane. One case reminds me a lot of Hamilton's. Del. Jerry Mezzatesta was a powerful Democrat in West Virginia's Legislature, chairman of the House Education Committee.

In 1998, the Hampshire County Board of Education hired him as "educational programs' government liaison." The $48,000-a-year position was new; Mezzatesta the only applicant.

That was an election year, and Mezzatesta's Republican opponent raised a fuss, rightly suggesting that acting as a government liaison for a school system in his district was part of Mezzatesta's job description as a delegate, and he shouldn't get paid extra for doing the job he was elected to perform.

Mezzatesta backed down. But after winning election, the stubborn delegate took another job with the school district, as a grant writer. He even managed to get the state Ethics Commission to give the arrangement its stamp of approval. (Hamilton may wish he lived in West Virginia before his situation is resolved.)

With West Virginia's weak ethics laws and weaker enforcement, Mezzatesta probably could have lived happily ever after, drawing two public paychecks during every legislative session. (The Ethics Commission approved that, as well.) But he got greedy, and stupid.

He solicited grants directly from the state Department of Education, even though he gave a sworn statement to the Ethics Commission saying he had not. Then he and his wife forged a letter to cover his tracks.

He lost his chairmanship, his seat and his job with the school district. Mezzatesta and his wife pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of fabricating legislative records.

I think what amazed me most about West Virginia corruption, though, was how casual and open it was. Actions that should have been scandalous weren't, because they were so widely accepted.

Take, for instance, Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin. He has been a political force in West Virginia for nearly 30 years. As Senate president, he presided over the incredible expansion of a fund set up to assist greyhound breeders -- never mind that his mother was a top recipient of the fund. Thanks in large part to Tomblin's actions, his mother went from receiving $10,262 from the fund in 1994 to $329,000 in 2004.

In 1999, his wife got a $95,000 job as president of the Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College, despite her lack of doctoral degree or any significant experience in collegiate administration.

Such pervasive conflicts of interest would have stunted Tomblin's political career in most states. Not in West Virginia, where he is as powerful as ever.

None of this, of course, excuses Hamilton's behavior, and I'm glad The Roanoke Times editorial board is among those who have called for him to resign after e-mails showed he had worked hard to secure a job with ODU even as he was working to secure funding for the teaching center that would employ him.

What he did was absolutely wrong.

But even so. Piker.

Radmacher is the editorial page editor of The Roanoke Times.

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