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.
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.
“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.
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