OLYMPIA — State senator and Republican congressional candidate Joe Zarelli collected unemployment checks for months while drawing his legislative salary and expenses. But the state now is demanding he return the jobless pay.
"I had a right to file. I filed," Zarelli said. "The Department of Employment Security said I qualified and paid the checks and then later went the other direction, and now I have to deal with that."
Zarelli, an ardent conservative and budget hawk, is a seven-year veteran of the Legislature and vice chairman of the Senate Republican caucus. He's challenging U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, D-Vancouver, in Southwestern Washington's 3rd District.
Zarelli, who was paid $32,801 in the past year as a legislator, wouldn't say how much he collected in unemployment benefits or how much he plans to pay back.
However, he said he received benefits for 10 months after he was laid off and that the department knew he was in the Legislature during that time. He entered the congressional race in May while receiving unemployment.
Zarelli, 40, lives in Ridgefield, Clark County, with his wife and four daughters.
He said he lost his full-time job as regional manager for Oakland-based Ipsa International, a security-consulting business, in August 2001.
In addition to his legislative salary, Zarelli receives $82 a day for expenses when the Legislature is in session or for committee work, plus office and telephone allowances, health-care coverage and pension contributions.
The average unemployment check is $318 a week, and the maximum is $496. The department would not say how much Zarelli received or even confirm he was a recipient, citing confidentiality laws. Benefits last about a year.
Zarelli entered the congressional race in mid-May after Republican Trent Matson abruptly withdrew. He polled 43 percent to Baird's 57 percent in last week's primary. Both were nominated without opposition.
The candidate hopes voters will be understanding of the pain of being thrown out of work and trying to pay bills. A legislator's pay is inadequate to support a family, he said.
Zarelli said he is now running a startup business he co-owns, Professional Security Concepts.
He said he's making ends meet "month to month," even while spending much of his time campaigning.
Zarelli did not list the unemployment checks on his annual personal financial-affairs statement for last year.
The report, filed in March, reported veteran's disability checks of between $3,000 and $15,000, his Senate pay and between $30,000 and $75,000 from the job he lost. He also reported investments, ownership of Emmanuel Gospel Supply, a Bible store in Vancouver, and a new security-consulting firm he co-owns.
The financial affairs form asks for all sources of income but does not specifically mention jobless pay.