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Whistleblower: ‘I want to do my work without fear of retaliation’

By   /   May 18, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 7 of 58 in the series Deadly Delays

MADISON, Wis. – Same story different day.

Now, who’s going to do something about it?

Another whistleblower at another Social Security Administration disability appeals office is alleging she has been bullied, harassed, intimidated and retaliated against for reporting official misconduct.

And she has the emails – 100-plus – to back up her claims.

“They are so corrupt. It’s absolutely horrible,” said the woman, a lead case technician in the Madison Office of Disability Adjudication and Review.

She spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing more retribution from her supervisors. While she said her particular experiences will more than likely betray her identity anyway, the ODAR case worker insisted she has had enough.

“I’m at point where they don’t care about me, I don’t see why I’m protecting them. This is my last resort,” she said. “I want to do my work without fear of retaliation.”

Watchdog.org file photo

THE INSIDER: A whistleblower in the Madison Social Security Administration disability appeals office, known as ODAR, is among several insiders who are publicly complaining of misconduct and retaliation at the agency.

She joins several other ODAR employees who have blown the whistle on what they describe as incompetence, malfeasance and retaliation in extremely hostile work environments. They have taken their accounts to Wisconsin Watchdog, and to congressional representatives.

The employee has worked for the Madison office for several years, and claims management retaliated against her after she was called to testify in an inner-office misconduct case. The incident involved “inappropriate behavior” by an administrative law judge, she said.

“It was not presented to me that it was voluntary. I had to testify. It was my duty,” she said. So, on July 28, 2015, the lead case technician spent four hours testifying to SSA investigators.

She said she has a sterling work record, receiving bonuses, commendations, and positive reviews from her supervisors.

“I excelled in a short amount of time. I am good at what I do,” she said. “However, they don’t like people that speak up. If I see something and it’s not right, I say something.”

In fact, months before her testimony about the administrative law judge, the employee was named lead case technician for the Oak Brook, Ill., ODAR office. She did so on the condition that she would be able to telework three days a week from her home in the Madison area.

Not long after she testified, policy changed. She was told she would be able to work only one day a week from home, according to emails. She appealed. Management ended up taking away her one day at home, demanding that she work every day out of the Chicago-area office. When she told her supervisor that she was losing hundreds of dollars a month paying for hotel rooms in Oak Brook while she was paying the mortgage on her Madison-area home, her supervisor curtly told her to talk to her union rep.

She filed for a hardship transfer request. Not only was she going into debt, but she said her husband, a disabled veteran, was missing out on medical appointments because of her managers’ intransigence.

“I had to file a grievance,” the employee said. “I never had filed one, but I filed an EEO (Equal Employment Opportunity) complaint for retaliation.”

She said she and other staff members have been bullied and intimidated before by Laura Hodorowicz, the Madison office director.

The employee said she and some of her colleagues learned after they complained in another harassment case that raising conduct questions was basically futile. Hodorowicz, she said, made life difficult for whistleblowers.

“We had a bullseye on our back,” the employee said.

ODAR office directors are required to forward media questions on to the Social Security Administration’s Chicago communications office.

Doug Nguyen, regional communications director said the agency cannot “publicly address this as it is an internal personnel matter.”

Hodorowicz previously served in management at the Milwaukee office. She was the officer who had to inform Julie Dable Stuart that her entire Social Security disability appeals file had been lost. In fact, the confidential files of six Wisconsin residents who appealed to the Milwaukee ODAR branch were lost for months “as were documents from seven other files after an agency employee took them home to work on them,” according to a 2007 story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Another whistleblower from the Milwaukee office recently corrected the record, noting that the internal office file shows it wasn’t a mere staff member but an administrative law judge who took home the files — and lost them.

Dable Stuart told the Journal Sentinel she was stunned when, after waiting more than three years on decision about whether she’d receive disability benefits, a large envelope arrived at her Waukesha home.

“It was pieces of my Social Security file,” said Dable Stuart told the newspaper. “No postmark. It had my name and postage due. I had to pay $6.65. It was all kinds of personal information about me.”

In February 2007, Hodorowicz sent Dable Stuart a letter notifying her that “hearing-related documents from her file “appear to have been stolen from an employee of the Milwaukee Office of Disability Adjudication and Review.”

Hodorowicz, the Madison office employee said, has a history of protecting administrative law judges accused of incompetence or misconduct, and retaliating against those who dare to challenge the status quo.

“There’s a kind of good old boys group in this office,” the lead case technician said.

Complaints alleging retaliation and harassment are pending, according to the employee. But, like the inappropriate conduct case in which she testified, complaints seem to perpetually be “under investigation.”

She’s back at the Madison office now and doesn’t have to take on the kind of hotel bills she once did. But the fear and ostracism in the building is palpable, the employee said.

Photo by judgelondonstevers.me

JUSTICE DELAYED: ODAR offices in Milwaukee have huge backlogs of cases, some running 1,000 days. Nationally, there are more than 1 million disability claims cases in backlog.

She has taken her complaints to U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s office. She said a staff member for the Madison Democrat gave the whistleblower the number for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“I can do that myself,” she said, frustrated. And she did. She reached out to multiple government officials, anyone who would listen.

“I saw your article and saw (Sen. Ron Johnson’s) office was mentioned in it and I had an aha! moment,” the ODAR employee said, referring to Wisconsin Watchdog’s special investigation into the Milwaukee Office of Disability Adjudication and Review. In it, an official from the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, chaired by Johnson, said the committee was seeking answers from the SSA about the many complaints they had received.

“I forwarded my information to them and I got an email back from them. They said people are coming out of the woodwork with their complaints (about ODAR) following your story,” the whistleblower said.

Ronald Klym, a long-time senior legal assistant in the Milwaukee ODAR 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.

RELATED: Deadly Delay: Whistleblower alleges misconduct, incompetence in Social Security office

Nguyen, the SSA spokesman, in a previous story 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.”

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.

The Madison office whistleblower confirmed Klym’s allegations, saying at one point she saw 2,000 cases from the Milwaukee office handed off to the Oak Brook operation.

Another employee in the Milwaukee office told Wisconsin Watchdog that she has been repeatedly bullied and harassed by supervisors.

“People in the office are scared,” the woman said. She declined to provide her name on the record for fear of retaliation. She said she has experienced several years of bullying, harassment and intimidation – in part for speaking out against administrators.

Like Klym, the Madison ODAR office employee said she has been investigated by the Social Security Administration’s Office of Inspector General on bogus scheduling charges she said amount to more retaliation. Nothing has come of the investigation.

She learned Wednesday that a supervisor with knowledge of her testimony shared the information with another administrator.

“It is known I testified and I am claiming retaliation because of the testimony, but they did not have to know what I testified about,” the employee wrote in an email to the supervisor. “That is a major breach of privacy and because nobody in the SSA can be trusted, you have handed my testimony over to people I have testified against.”

The supervisor responded, “Your statement was shared (with the supervisor) to assist her in investigating your claims of retaliation.”

The employee said she is now in counseling. She says she can’t sleep, suffers from chronic migraines, and anxiety.

She certainly is second-guessing blowing the whistle in this government agency.

“They say, ‘see something, say something,’ but you are damned if you do,” she said.

Part of 58 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’

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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.