Lehigh Acres Community Planning Corp member Frank LaRosa wouldn't speak Friday about his filing for jobless benefits after being defeated in his bid for reelection to the Lee Memorial Health Systems board.
LaRosa lost $13,055 in annual salary when he was not reelected to the board. State officials say, according to news accounts, that a failed electoral campaign is not the same as a layoff. They say that LaRosa is being told he must pay back the $5,554 he has already collected from the state.
According to news accounts, LaRosa disputes the $5,554 figure and said he probably collected only $3,300 in 2011.
However, the case is not being viewed as a question of fraud. And an appeal of the decision by LaRosa is pending.
The story broke last week and when he was called by The Citizen for his side of the story, he said "have a nice day," and hung up.
A friend of his, however, Frank Lohlein, also of Lehigh Acres, defended LaRosa, 70, for filing for unemployment benefits after he lost the election.
"He was told it was okay to do that by someone and that is what he did," Lohlein told The Citizen.
Kristin Lock, a spokesperson with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity which oversees unemployment benefits, said the case was not considered a question of potential fraud.
However, according to news accounts, health system officials have quietly been challenging LaRosa's claim since he first filed for benefits on January 23, 2011. Jim Humphrey, the health system's attorney, said it was "ridiculous" that an ousted elected official would apply for unemployment benefits.
Humphrey also called it "a violation of the public trust."
He said a person is not an employee when they are an elected official and therefore are not due any jobless benefits.
LaRosa apparently said he had applied for jobless benefits because he through he qualified for them, an assumption that unemployment officials first backed up, according to news accounts.
But LaRosa said if he owed the money, he would pay it back "but it was their mistake."
LaRosa has been active in Lehigh for several years, many of them dealing with youth activities and for the last several years, he has served on the Lehigh Acres Community Planning Corp., and may be the only surviving member of the organization when it was first formed to help develop a plan for future Lehigh more than a decade ago. He has been very active on the planning panel and rarely misses a meeting.
LaRosa has also filed for election to fill the vacated Seat 3 on the East County Water Control District (ECWCD). Two other candidates have also filed for the same seat.
The elections for both the ECWCD and the Lehigh Fire and Rescue board of commissioners are in November.
LaRosa served on the 10-member board of directors that oversees the health system's $1.2 billion budget and also oversees the CEO of Lee Memorial Health Systems.
The mix-up was explained to a local news organization last week via email. Lock, the spokesperson with the state's Department of Economic Opportunity, said that "Because the employer is a reimbursable employer, benefits were paid to the claimant though it was later determined the claimant was an elected official."
But there was no response from Lock when she was asked why jobless benefits were paid out despite the health system's early notification to them that LaRosa was an elected board member and not an employee.
LaRosa is quoted as saying that if he owed it, he would pay it back blaming the state for accepting the application in the first place, not himself.
But as for an appeal, LaRosa wants the state to admit it was their mistake.