Sarah Carver spent years in bureaucratic hell.
The former senior case technician at the Huntington, West Virginia, Office of Disability Adjudication and Review says she was ostracized, penalized and traumatized for reporting on incidents of alleged waste, fraud, and abuse in the Social Security Administration agency that handles disability claim appeals.
She was one of two whistleblowers, with colleague Jennifer Griffith, to stand up to the pressures of enforced conformity. And they paid the price.
Carver said at one time she was placed in office “solitary confinement” for a year.
“It was a room that had no windows, and there were no other coworkers. I wasn’t able to participate in staff meetings,” Carver recalled.
Why? Because she repeatedly attempted to blow the whistle on corruption in the federal agency. And the insider information the government employee provided was huge – ultimately leading to the indictments of an administrative law judge, a hotshot attorney, and a psychologist. The three men are accused of participating in a scheme to defraud taxpayers of some $600 million in approved disability benefits.
Carver said she understands exactly how Ron Klym feels.
Klym, a long-time senior legal assistant in the Milwaukee ODAR office, says he also is under fire by his supervisors for going public with his allegations of incompetence and misconduct in the government agency.
He detailed his claims in a Wisconsin Watchdog special investigation earlier last 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.
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, which crosses six states and 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.
Nguyen said he could not speak to Klym’s other allegations because they are personnel matters.
Carver, who left West Virginia ODAR office in March after what she described as 10 years of harassment and abuse, said Klym is spot on in his characterizations of the “shell game” being played with disability claim cases.
That was particularly the problem with Administrative Law Judge David B. Daugherty, who faces charges of fraud and money laundering in the federal indictment. Carver said the agency manipulates the system to reflect what officials want Congress to see.
“Agency managers continue to use various methods of transferring cases from office to office to manipulate processing statistics,” she said. “Cases were transferred into the Huntington office all the time. Management would assign those cases to Judge Daugherty knowing he would rubber-stamp approve it. In return, management’s office statistics looked great.”
“This is how promotions happen within management. During the height of the fraud in the Huntington office, there were so many management promotions it was like a revolving door,” she added.
In April, Daugherty, disability attorney Eric Conn, and psychologist Alfred Bradley Adkins appeared in federal court on an 18-count indictment.
Daugherty, according to WSAZ in Lexington, Ky., was arrested April 5 at his home in South Carolina, five years after the Wall Street Journal brought to light the judge’s generous benefits-approval record.
All three men pleaded not guilty. Daugherty is free on a $50,000 signature bond. Conn is free on a $1.25 million bond.
In the fiscal year that ended in September 2010, Daugherty, who presided over the “impoverished intersection of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio, decided 1,284 cases and awarded benefits in all but four,” the Journal reported.
In West Virginia overall, only about 38 percent of cases are approved, according to the latest SSA numbers.
The national average is 44 percent.
Conn is charged with multiple offenses, including making false statements, money laundering, destruction of evidence, and retaliating against a witness. That witness was Carver, who said Conn had an undercover detective trail her.
Conn, who advertised himself as “Mr. Social Security,” falsified medical documents “to make his clients appear disabled and paid Adkins and other doctors $300 to $450 a piece to sign completed evaluations supporting his clients’ appeals, according to the indictment, as reported by the Lexington Herald Leader. “Inside the Social Security bureaucracy, Daugherty arranged for Conn’s appeals to be assigned to him, collecting $9,000 to $9,500 every month from the lawyer in exchange for guaranteed approvals, according to the indictment.”
Klym said the long delays in the Milwaukee appeals office violated the civil rights of the applicants. While no one can be guaranteed approval (except in Daugherty’s court when he was a judge), they are entitled to an answer in a reasonable timeline, the whistleblower said.
“There are people who have to sit and wait and wait a good couple of years before they have their case processed because they don’t have the right attorney – because they didn’t have Eric Conn,” she said. “They had an attorney basically with moral and ethical values and they were penalized for that.”
Klym was escorted out of the office Thursday and told that he would not be able to return pending review.
He says he was told by a supervisor during a meeting that the agency is not happy 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.
Carver said she has been down that road.
She said upper management knew about the charges of misconduct in the West Virginia office. She reported it several times. Yet, instead of being punished for their failure to act, managers were rewarded. Some retired early, while others were “transitioned” into other jobs
“They received promotions, they got to train other offices,” she said. “Think about that: they were training other offices throughout the nation on how to get these cases through quicker.”
Klym makes the same allegations about his workplace supervisors.
He said Trevor Pelot, supervisor of the Milwaukee ODAR office, signed off on the backlog reports and the case transfers. Pelot was promoted to office manager last week.
Klym said he believes the promotion was a reward for artificially improving the Milwaukee office’s disposition rates.
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.
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.
Carver’s advice to Klym? Keep doing what he is doing.
“I was told the same thing, that I was not allowed to go to the press. And they tried to prevent me from going to” lawmakers, she said. “People need to know about mismanagement in the Social Security Administration, and why these funds are being depleted. There needs to be accountability.”
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