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Senator to Social Security Administration official: ‘I would say the system is rigged’

By   /   May 12, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 6 of 61 in the series Deadly Delays

In the wake of mounting allegations of corruption and incompetence inside Social Security Administration disability review offices, a Senate panel is seeking answers.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management held a hearing Thursday focused on SSA adjudication and appeals judges.

“Today we will look into several issues surrounding administrative law judges, their independence and the importance of due process as provided by the Administrative Procedure Act,” said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., chairman of the subcommittee in his opening statements.

Lankford has pushed for reforms to Social Security Disability Insurance since 2011.

AP file photo

SOCIAL INSECURITY: Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla, on Thursday chaired a Senate subcommittee hearing into the conduct and hiring policies of the Social Security Administration.

The senator noted that over the past four years Congress has appropriated “significant resources” so SSA could hire more administrative law judges to address its massive backlog of disability claims. Yet, the agency has been unable to hire sufficient numbers of judges to tackle the cases, which topped 1 million last year.

“But instead of hiring more ALJs, in a misguided effort to expedite the adjudications process, SSA is in the process of moving tens of thousands of pending cases from ALJs to non-APA (Administrative Procedure Act) attorney examiners, who are regular employees of the agency and lack the requisite decisional independence,” Lankford said.

The SSA has proposed removing two classes of benefits claims hearings from the responsibility of its administrative law judges, transferring them to federal administrative appeals judges and attorney examiners with Social Security’s Appeals Council.

“This change would impact tens of thousands of cases, potentially depriving individuals of their right to a decision by an independent judge free from undue agency influence,” states a subcommittee press release.

“This SSA proposal raises important questions about whether cases heard by non-APA attorneys constitute a violation of the Administrative Procedure Act,” Lankford said.

Social Security Administration Deputy Commissioner Theresa Gruber told lawmakers that the agency is looking at best business processes.

“(It’s about) how can we best support our decision-makers, our administrative law judges,” Gruber said. “How can we leverage video so we can erase service backlogs from state to state.”

Ranking subcommittee member Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., wasn’t buying it.

Heidi Heitkamp

North Dakota Democrat Sen. Heidi Heitkamp says “the system is rigged.”

“I would say the system is rigged,” Heitkamp said. “Why not hire ALJs? That’s the disconnect for us here.”

Gruber said the agency can hire attorney examiners while building its administrative law judge ranks.

“Our plan calls for aggressively hiring ALJs,” she said.

Watch the subcommittee hearing here

Both Lankford and Heitkamp asked Gruber to delay its strategy to hire attorney examiners and administrative appeals judges.

Lankford said if a sizable number of claimants are denied a hearing before the ALJs, there is the potential that SSA’s proposal to move cases away from administrative law judges could result in a class-action lawsuit.

“While we all share the goal of eliminating the hearing backlog, our concern isn’t just about meeting desired results; we must also focus on how we get there,” the chairman said.

RELATED: Social Security disability agency has history of punishing whistleblowers

At the same time, there appears to be myriad problems systemwide with many of the judges and administrators in place.

Whistleblowers have brought to light some serious allegations of misconduct, abuse and long delays at Social Security Administration disability claims appeals offices.

Ron Klym, who went public with charges last week in a Wisconsin Watchdog investigation, has taken his complaints to U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Klym, a long-time senior legal assistant in the Milwaukee Office of Disability Adjudication and Review Office, alleges he has been retaliated against by supervisors for going public with his charges of incompetence and misconduct in the agency.

The federal employee, who has worked for SSA for 16 years, provided Wisconsin Watchdog with documents showing extremely long wait times for claimants appealing their denied applications for benefits – in some cases, more than 1,000 days.

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.

Klym was placed on administrative leave last week after, according to Klym, he was scolded by a supervisor for taking his charges to the press. He was told he could return to work Monday. SSA officials are now investigating three separate complaints filed by Klym.

The whistleblower 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.”

Sarah Carver, a 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.

Carver and colleague Jennifer Griffith provided insider information that ultimately led to the indictments of an administrative law judge, an 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 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.

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.