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Former Peoria Township supervisor received more than $15,000 in unemployment benefits after losing re-election battle. He wasn't eligible

Frank Abdnour.jpg
Frank Abdnour
Supplied Photo
Frank Abdnour served as supervisor for the Township of Peoria starting in 2017 until losing re-election in 2021.

The former Peoria township supervisor applied for unemployment benefits after losing his race for re-election two years ago. He erroneously received more than $15,000 in benefits. The current supervisor fought for months to claw back the funds owed to the township.

Peoria Township supervisor Frank Abdnour lost the closely contested Democratic primary by just two votes in April 2021. The current supervisor, LaTrina Leary, took office the next month.

Shortly after taking office, Leary said she learned the township office was set to relocate very soon from its 205 SW Adams St. location to 427 W. Main St.

LaTrina Leary Facebook.jpg
LaTrina Leary
Current Township Supervisor LaTrina Leary sent two separate protest letters to IDES, in an effort to reverse Abdnour's unemployment benefits claim.

“The plans were set to be moved to the new location by the end of June.” she said.

After the move, Leary said most mail was forwarded successfully to the new offices. But she said a letter she received in early 2022 from the Illinois Department of Employment Security regarding an unemployment claim from the previous July made it clear that not everything was making it to the new location.

“I was not sure who had filed for unemployment because no one had been laid off, or fired within the township,” she said. “So, I did a little digging and quickly realized that it was the former supervisor.”

According to IDES documents obtained by WCBU through a Freedom of Information Act request, Abdnour filed a claim for unemployment on July 4, 2021 and received $15,380 in unemployment benefits through December.

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FOIA Request
LaTrina Leary says statements from IDES, like the one pictured obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, were sent to the wrong address, the Township's previous location at SW Adams Street. This letter is dated for November, when the Township moved offices in June.
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An envelope from IDES obtained by WCBU in a Freedom of Information Act request indicates multiple instances of failed attempts to deliver IDES correspondence to the former address for the Township's offices.

Leary points out the previous address for the township is listed on Abdnour’s unemployment claim and multiple attempts were made to deliver letters from IDES there.

Leary contacted the township's attorney and sent a protest letter on Feb. 25, 2022 to IDES. The protest was denied due to being outside of the legal time limit.

“So, then I filed another protest for the fourth quarter and that was approved,” Leary said. “So, it had to be within a time frame, a certain time frame, of receiving those statements, those quarters.”

On March 14, 2022, IDES sent Abdnour a letter, seeking to recoup the more than $15,000 he was paid. Abdnour protested in an appeal letter to the agency, writing that he acted in good faith and believed he was eligible for the benefits. He claimed he even had to start the process over after his account was hacked and initial application information lost, and no one at IDES questioned his eligibility throughout the process.

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Abdnour's appeal letter, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act Request, in which he claims to have good faith intentions and says IDES agents never questioned his eligibility while filing his unemployment claim. He also elaborates later on the difficulties of providing proof of searching for other employment while taking care of his wife, who he says was battling cancer at the time.

Professor Michael LeRoy from the University of Illinois School of Labor and Employment Relations said it’s not surprising this issue could have flown under the radar at the state’s unemployment agency. IDES was strained under the weight of a flurry of new unemployment claims filed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"These first-level agents are well-meaning people, they are swamped,” said LeRoy. “This would be an unusual case for that person. They wouldn’t necessarily be versed on all aspects of the law. And let’s keep in mind: the agent is responding over the phone to what this person is telling him or her. So they’re acting in complete reliance.”

Illinois took out a $4.5 billion federal loan during the pandemic to plug holes in the state's depleted unemployment trust fund. The remainder of the debt owed back to the government was paid off in January.

A representative of IDES said the agency can't comment on specific cases, due to a confidentiality section in the Unemployment Insurance Act, but a general outline provided by the agency on how the appeals process works lines up with Leary's experiences.

A telephone hearing with an administrative law judge was held on July 20, 2022. Leary was present for the proceedings.

“The findings was ... in favor of the township,” she said. “Legally, those benefits should not have been given out, he should not have received them.”

This is consistent with Administrative Law Judge Martin McGrory’s ruling, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act Request. He said about Abdnour:

“His salary was paid out of the Township's general funds. Therefore, he was in the employ of a government entity whose services performed as the Township Supervisor were in the exercise of his duties as an elected official. The claimant is not eligible for unemployment benefits."

Professor LeRoy said, based on Section 220 of the Illinois Unemployment Insurance Act, the judge made the only right call.

“This is not even a matter of interpretation,” he said. “If this individual was an elected official and somehow lost office, it doesn’t even say how you lose office, whether it’s through a lost election, whether you’re removed for cause, whatever the reason is. You can’t file for...well, you can file for unemployment, but you’re not entitled to any benefit.”

But LeRoy points out it's not impossible for an elected official to qualify for workers' benefits or protections. Sometimes they do. LeRoy uses the example of former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who was shot in an assassination attempt shortly after beginning her third term in 2011.

“Her office, on her behalf, filed for a federal workers’ comp claim,” he said. “And it was successful. That’s something she got by virtue of being elected to office and serving in that role.”

LeRoy shares this example to illustrate that a former elected official could, in good faith, believe they're eligible for unemployment benefits.

Initial IDES Unemployment Finding.jpg
This initial unemployment finding from IDES, obtained by WCBU through a Freedom of Information Act request, outlines Abdnour's weekly benefits, instructions to receive them and lists the reason for unemployment as: "Laid-Off (Lack of Work)." Professor LeRoy says this would not be applicable for an elected official losing re-election.

“Really it doesn’t matter what his state of mind is when he makes the claim, as long as he’s not trying to defraud the system,” LeRoy said. “And I don’t think it’s close to that.”

Abdnour declined to be interviewed for this story, citing the legal situation as "ongoing." But according to township supervisor LaTrina Leary, the funds were returned.

“This past fall, we recently received the funds from IDES.” she said.

In total, Leary says $12,120 were returned to the township. The additional $3,260 in Abdnour's benefits were federal funds, part of a pandemic supplement program in effect at the time.

Leary said it was important to her to get the situation resolved, as a steward of taxpayer dollars.

“That is the main message I would like to get across,” she said. “For them to know that their tax dollars is in good hands, their tax dollars are being allocated accurately for what it is intended to be utilized for.”

About 60% of the township's $2.2 million budget for the current fiscal year is appropriated to its general assistance fund, which includes low-income vouchers for needs like rent, utilities, and transportation. Most of the remainder goes toward conducting tax assessments, pensions, and various administrative costs.

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Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.