MADISON, Wis. – The federal employee who blew the whistle on problems at the Social Security Administration’s disability review office has been placed on administrative leave.
Ron Klym, a senior legal assistant for the Milwaukee Office of Adjudication and Review, tells Wisconsin Watchdog he was escorted out of the office Thursday and told that he would not be able to return pending review.
Klym says he was told by a supervisor during a meeting that the agency is not happy that he went to Wisconsin Watchdog with his allegations of misconduct, incompetence, and retaliation. He was informed of the decision by Chief Administrative Law Judge Christopher Messina.
“Rather than succumb to carrying out dubious directives ordered by the supervisor who managed the documents where the appeals languished,” Klym said he blew the whistle to the press and to U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh. “My repeated inquiries were ignored and every attempt to contact the agency about the problems were stifled” by a supervisor.
A spokesman from the Social Security Administration’s Chicago region did not respond to a request for comment.
Klym detailed his allegations in a Wisconsin Watchdog special investigation earlier this week. The federal employee, who has worked for SSA for 16 years, said he is being retaliated against for going to management, then lawmakers, and finally Wisconsin Watchdog with documents showing extremely long wait times for applicants.
In portions of northeast Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, claimants have waited more than 900 days for the appeals process to conclude.
Beyond the delays is what Klym calls the “shell game,” the wholesale transferring of cases to other parts of the country by administrators to make the Milwaukee office’s numbers look better than they are.
Doug Nguyen, communications director for the Social Security Administration Chicago region, a six-state region that includes Milwaukee, earlier this week 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.
Nguyen said he could not speak to Klym’s other allegations because they are personnel matters.
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 to Deborah 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 SSA public affairs officials.
Pelot, 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.
Klym said Pelot conducted an impromptu performance review of him not long after Wisconsin Watchdog reached out to the office.
Klym has previously been suspended for alleged conduct issues, including 10 days last September for destruction of agency property. He was accused of breaking his workstation keyboard. Klym said the equipment fell onto the floor and broke apart.
He said within 18 hours of his email to the SSA attorney about the case backlogs, two inspector general officers “were investigating me over a broken computer.”
Klym was at home in his pool when the agents came calling.
“They took me out of my pool and asked me questions for an hour and a half, and they requested to search my apartment,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, chairman of the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, is looking into the allegations, according to a committee staff member.
During what he described as an exit interview with Pelot, Klym said he tore up the supervisor’s review.
“He said that I had violated the public trust” by going to Wisconsin Watchdog with the allegations, Klym said. “He rolled out a string of platitudes about public service and trust. He knew the buttons he was pushing.”
When he took the position as chief administrative law judge, Messina admonished staff about what he described as a “toxic work environment” in the Milwaukee office, Klym said. Messina also told Milwaukee staff that they were at least 3 ½ years behind the average ODAR office in training.
SSA currently is investigating three separate claims of a hostile work environment filed by Klym, including a complaint of a supervisor’s alleged racial slur and inappropriate sexual comments.
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