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Johnson seeks answers to Social Security whistleblower’s charges

By   /   May 4, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 2 of 61 in the series Deadly Delays

MADISON, Wis. – U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson wants answers to a whistleblower’s allegations of misconduct, incompetence and employee retaliation inside the Milwaukee disability claims review office.

The Oshkosh Republican, who serves as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, first learned of the allegations in March, according to committee staff.

On Wednesday, Wisconsin Watchdog in an exclusive investigative report detailed charges of exceptionally long processing delays, docket manipulation, and abusive conduct inside the Milwaukee Office of Disability Adjudication and Review. The agency handles appeals of individuals initially denied Social Security disability benefits.

RELATED: Deadly Delay: Whistleblower alleges misconduct, incompetence in Social Security office

Ronald Klym, a long-time senior legal assistant for the administrative law judges who preside over the appeals process, tells Wisconsin Watchdog things got rough for him in recent years – after he alerted senior officials and, later, lawmakers about a litany of management problems at ODAR.

AP file photo

COMMITTEE QUESTIONS: U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has asked the Social Security Administration to respond to a whistleblower’s complaints.

“Absolutely. I am being punished because I am a whistleblower,” said Klym, who alleged harassment, additional work assignments and unreasonable deadlines.

A Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs staff member told Wisconsin Watchdog that the chairman’s office sent a letter to acting Social Security Administration Commissioner Carolyn Colvin noting Klym’s concerns, including many of the issues he raised in the investigative report. The aide said Johnson has requested a briefing with SSA staff, but no meeting has yet been scheduled.

Klym said he is not surprised.

“It’s another example of the agency kicking the can down the road, with (SSA hoping that) people will forget about it with the ever-changing news cycle,” the whistleblower said.

“This is what they have done for years,” he added.

According to emails obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog, the Milwaukee ODAR office has recently racked up the same kind of processing delays spelled out in an internal audit 13 years ago.

Average processing times from initial application to reconsideration, if the request is denied, can be more than a year.

Cases are then appealed to the administrative law judges at ODAR for review and final judgment.

For the period ended March 25, the average wait  in Milwaukee, from hearing request through disposition of the case, was 601 days, according to internal documents. That’s nearly 20 months. It’s up to 618 days now, according to a Social Security Administration official.

But records show cases from Green Bay, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and other smaller communities in the Milwaukee ODAR coverage area had even longer backlogs in recent years.

On July 11, 2011, 305 of the 600 oldest cases were in Green Bay; 203 were in Marquette, Mich.; 62 came from Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.

Dozens of cases on appeal took more than 700 days to complete. One Green Bay case clocked in at 862 days to dispose of. A Marquette request for benefits hit 1,064 days, and another was completed in 1,126 days.

“We had two clients who stopped in the office yesterday wondering what’s going on, and they have been waiting for 21 months,” said Jessica Bray, partner at Upper Michigan Law in Escanaba, Mich. Her colleague handled the noted cases that topped 1,000 days. “I sent a letter to the Milwaukee office, but I don’t think it’s going to do any good. Those cases haven’t even been assigned yet.”

In 2011, the inventory for the Milwaukee region’s disability claims appeal office was at approximately 2,200 cases; today it’s running at about 12,000, Klym said.

Doug Nguyen, communications director for the Social Security Administration Chicago region, a six-state area that includes Milwaukee, said the agency acknowledges that Milwaukee ODAR has a “high average processing time for disability appeal hearings, and we are working to address the issue.”

“The Social Security disability program is an important resource for people with disabilities, and we work tirelessly every day to provide the best service possible,” he said.

Klym said the long delays are impairing applicants’ civil rights. While those seeking Social Security disability benefits don’t have an unquestioned right to the payments, they do have a right to due process, he said.

“No one can guarantee the benefit. I know a case where someone has filed for a benefit 26 times,” Klym said. “It’s not the result, it’s the opportunity. If your opportunity has been waylaid, to paraphrase (George) Orwell, we’re all equal, but some are more equal. That’s a process issue.”

Klym told Wisconsin Watchdog the Milwaukee office’s case disposition numbers have at times drastically improved because managers in the chain have dumped off scores of cases to other regional offices.

“They are wholesale shipping cases out,” the senior legal assistant said. The impression is that the offices are performing at a better rate than they actually are. “When you ship 1,000 cases to somewhere else, then you do an audit, it looks better.”

Klym said he has paid the price for blowing the whistle.

Emails show the legal assistant was expected to carry a greater workload than his colleagues. He was assigned additional work and given what he described as unreasonable case deadlines in the wake of his complaints to management.

“(I)t appears Mr. Pelot is in his actions and directives, retaliating against an employee who contacted a member of the United States Senate,” Klym wrote to in a letter toDeborah Giesen, regional attorney at the Social Security Administration in Chicago. Klym referred to Trevor Pelot, supervisor of the Milwaukee ODAR office.

“As I am the employee who made allegations with regards to over 500 civil rights violations, under Trevor Pelot’s direction of dockets in Milwaukee, retaliatory action is quite conceivable,” Klym wrote.

Reached at the Milwaukee office Monday, Pelot referred Wisconsin Watchdog’s questions to Social Security Administration public affairs officials.

Pelot, the supervisor of the ODAR office’s dockets, whose name is on the backlog reports and the case transfers, has been promoted to office director. He began his new post on Monday, according to Klym.

Klym said he believes the promotion was a reward for artificially improving the Milwaukee office’s disposition rates.

“Mr. Pelot was promoted after all of these issues, after they were made aware of the complete report,” Klym said. “Upper management has received this report three times since Sept. 2, (2015).”

Johnson’s Senate committee aide said staff recommended Klym contact the Office of Special Counsel, which is charged with upholding federal government whistleblower rights.

Klym said he has yet to reach out to that office.

“Frankly, I am performing my job. I do not feel I should have to seek legal representation for fulfilling my sworn oath. Part of that sworn oath is to not obey illegal orders and to report all waste, fraud and abuse,” he said.

Part of 61 in the series Deadly Delays
  1. Deadly Delay: Whistleblower alleges misconduct, incompetence in Social Security office
  2. Johnson seeks answers to Social Security whistleblower’s charges
  3. Social Security disability program has plenty of problems elsewhere
  4. Social Security whistleblower placed on administrative leave
  5. Social Security disability agency has history of punishing whistleblowers
  6. Senator to Social Security Administration official: ‘I would say the system is rigged’
  7. Whistleblower: ‘I want to do my work without fear of retaliation’
  8. Social Security whistleblowers ‘coming out of the woodwork’
  9. Social Security whistleblower suspended after going public with complaints
  10. Social Security whistleblower questioned by investigators after going public
  11. Social Security whistleblower now faces firing
  12. Social Security officials not answering questions about whistleblower retaliation
  13. ‘Culture of corruption and cover-up’ alleged in Madison Social Security office
  14. Ron Johnson: We’re tracking down abuse allegations in Social Security agency
  15. Senate committee presses for answers from troubled Social Security Administration
  16. Sources: Social Security judge suspended in wake of Madison scandal
  17. Attorney seeks appeal of decisions by Social Security judge accused of ‘sexy’ comments
  18. Social Security appeals judge pleads guilty to retaliation charge
  19. More retaliation despite investigation, Social Security office sources say
  20. Openly gay whistleblower at Social Security office claims intimidation, retaliation
  21. Wheels of justice turn frustratingly slow for Social Security whistleblowers
  22. Baldwin joins Johnson in calling for ‘immediate action’ on Social Security misconduct claims
  23. Documents: Social Security judge wrote claimant was ‘rode hard and put away wet’
  24. Social Security judge investigated for harassment heading back to hearings
  25. Social Security judge accused of misconduct refuses to step aside, sources say
  26. Whistleblower at scandal-plagued Social Security office seeks restraining order against manager
  27. Whistleblower report alleges widespread waste, fraud, abuse at Social Security office
  28. Sen. Johnson to Social Security commissioner: Retaliation will not be tolerated
  29. Baldwin warns Social Security Administration not to retaliate
  30. Social Security Administration fires whistleblower
  31. Who is protecting Social Security whistleblowers?
  32. Sources: Social Security judge accused of racial, sexual remarks removed from hearings
  33. Social Security office director removed from Madison facility, sources say
  34. Senate committee probe into Social Security whistleblower retaliation continues
  35. Madison Social Security office like ‘giant dysfunctional family,’ source says
  36. Damage spreads at scandal-plagued Social Security office
  37. Fired Social Security whistleblower gets no help from federal whistleblower protector
  38. One month later, Social Security whistleblower still without job, pay, answers
  39. Federal agents stepping up investigation into troubled Social Security offices
  40. Investigation into troubled Social Security offices in a ‘holding pattern’
  41. Recent weeks bring shake-up at scandal-plagued Social Security offices
  42. Top judges resign at troubled Social Security Chicago headquarters
  43. Social Security chief judge retiring amid cloud of scandal
  44. Troubled Social Security disability claims agency promotes ‘positive organization culture’
  45. Senate inquiry into scandal-plagued Social Security offices plods along
  46. Social Security whistleblower: ‘Everything has been compromised’
  47. Sources: Social Security judge accused of sexual harassment removed from Madison office
  48. Fired Social Security whistleblower won’t be taking whistleblower protection training
  49. Letter: Social Security judge under fire granted power to decide
  50. Sources: Social Security judge accused of deciding cases on sex appeal retires
  51. Johnson seeks GAO review of alleged Social Security ‘shell game’
  52. Social Security judge demanded $65,000 expanded bathrooms
  53. Investigation finds abuse, law-breaking, no retaliation at Madison Social Security office
  54. Report: Social Security managers gambled, watched Packers at Lambeau on taxpayer dime
  55. Inspector General releases major findings of probe into troubled Social Security office
  56. Social Security whistleblower waiting for answers in privacy breach case
  57. A whistleblower’s story: Paying the price for shining a light
  58. Fired SSA employee featured in Watchdog investigation is ‘Whistleblower of the Year’
  59. Social Security whistleblower calls out agency, media in receiving award from journalists
  60. SSA whistleblowers ask, where’s the justice?
  61. Probes into troubled Social Security offices crawling along

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M.D. Kittle is bureau chief of Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment Reporter for Watchdog.org. Kittle is a 25-year veteran of print, broadcast and online media. He is the recipient of several awards for journalism excellence from The Associated Press, Inland Press, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, and others. He is also a member of Investigative Reporters & Editors. Kittle's extensive series on Wisconsin's unconstitutional John Doe investigations was the basis of a 2014 documentary on Glenn Beck's TheBlaze. His work has been featured in Town Hall, Fox News, NewsMax, and other national publications, and his reporting has been cited by news outlets nationwide. Kittle is a fill-in talk show host on the Jay Weber Show and the Vicki McKenna Show in Milwaukee and Madison.