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Social Security disability agency has history of punishing whistleblowers

By   /   May 6, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 5 of 61 in the series Deadly Delays

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.

WHISTLEBLOWERS: Sarah Carver (left) and Jennifer Griffith, brought alleged corruption to light inside a West Virginia office that handles Social Security disability appeals. Carver said they paid the price for telling the truth.

WHISTLEBLOWERS: Sarah Carver (left) and Jennifer Griffith, brought alleged corruption to light inside a West Virginia office that handles Social Security disability appeals. Carver said they paid the price for telling the truth.

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.

RELATED: Social Security whistleblower placed on administrative leave

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.

Photo by cgacriticalthinkers

CONN MAN? Attorney Eric Conn is charged in what is being described as a broad scheme to defraud taxpayers of $600 million in Social Security disability payments.

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.

Carver agrees.

“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.”

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.