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Social Security whistleblower suspended after going public with complaints

By   /   May 20, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 9 of 61 in the series Deadly Delays

MILWAUKEE – Mary Brister felt she had to anonymously share her story of misconduct at the federal agency where she works. She feared retaliation.

This week, Brister says she got what she feared.

A few days after she was quoted – without using her name – in a Wisconsin Watchdog story on alleged bullying and harassment inside the Milwaukee Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, Brister was suspended for five days on what she said are trumped-up charges.

Worse, the legal services professional said she was given a one-year suspension from teleworking, seemingly disparate discipline based on conduct of other staff members in the office.

“I do believe this suspension is the result of me going forward with my story,” she said, adding that she is stepping out from behind the veil of anonymity to stand up against what she claims is an environment of intimidation in the workplace. She is one of several employees in the Social Security Administration’s troubled ODAR offices who have shared their allegations — and their documents — with Wisconsin Watchdog.

Watchdog.org file photo

RETALIATION? – Mary Brister, an employee at the Milwaukee Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, said she received a hefty suspension after going public with her claims of misconduct inside the office.

Brister, a disabled veteran with post traumatic stress disorder, said she has been harassed by a supervisor to the point she was forced to file a police report. It was only then, she said, that the top administrative law judge in the office, Christopher Messina, took her allegations seriously.

“(My supervisor) told me she doesn’t believe we should be hiring veterans. She knew I was a vet. I have it documented,” the employee said.

In one case, the employee said an American Federation of Government Employees union steward asked Brister, “Did you take your meds?”

“When I came to the office, I thought I was actually working in the ‘hood, there was so much swearing. They say things that are very insulting,” she said.

In February, Brister said she was working from home, as directed, putting together the schedule for some of the administrative law judges who preside over Social Security disability appeals cases. Her supervisor called her and told her that it was against policy to take home the scheduling book. Brister said there was no administrative directive on the matter.

But the case worker said her supervisor used the call to “go off” about all kinds of things “she wanted to get off her chest,” most of which had nothing to do with the alleged violation. According to ODAR policy, such a conversation with an employee could be deemed inappropriate and against office policy. As a union employee, Brister would have had the right to a union representative present in what effectively turned into a Weingarten hearing, the employee said.

“I tried to get her off the phone. She said, ‘You’re going to listen to what I have to say,'” Brister said. Eventually she hung up and filed a police report alleging harassment.

That got the attention of Messina, the chief administrative law judge.

Things got nasty, Brister said. Her supervisors at first attempted to hit her with a charge of “babysitting” while she was doing her work at home. They dropped that charge when they found out that Brister’s 10-year-old grandson lives with her.

Meanwhile, Brister’s harassment complaint went nowhere, she said. The investigator didn’t review the time period in question, so found no evidence of harassment, she said. When Brister asked why, she was told by SSA regional attorney Deborah Giesen that “investigators can decide whatever they want to investigate.” Brister has documentation showing as much.

She said Messina and the office administrators held the case over her head for months and threw in the one-year suspension after they read her complaints in the Wisconsin Watchdog story.

RELATED: Social Security ‘whistleblowers coming out of the woodwork’

Brister noted that her punishment is much harsher than other staff members who were found to have committed much more egregious policy offices.

One employee, she said, mailed out personal information – a claimant’s name and Social Security number – in the envelope window. That’s a clear violation of ODAR policy, Brister said. The employee was not disciplined.

An administrative law judge, according to another whistleblower, took home case files and subsequently lost them. Some of the files were stolen. The consequences reportedly were nowhere as severe as Brister’s punishment.

Brister said her biggest crime, in the eyes of management, is that she has been vocal about incompetence and misconduct in the office.

“Messina is very vindictive,” she said. “He doesn’t like it when you go outside the agency. He comes down hard.”

A spokesman for the regional office of the Social Security Administration, says the whistleblower allegations are internal personnel matters, and he cannot comment on them.

Brister, it appears, may be too necessary for a full five-day suspension. She said she was informed that her forced time off, which began Friday, would include the weekend. So technically, she gets a three-day suspension.

“I think what it is, they don’t want me off too long. I do scheduling for two of the judges so they want me to be back before chaos hits,” Brister said.

The legal services employee said she has an exemplary work record over 25-plus years in the field. She has spent most of her career working for state and county court systems, where she has been recognized for excellence by her supervisors.

She said she had never received a negative mark on her performance record until she took the position in the Milwaukee ODAR office in 2012.

Speaking freely about what she describes as a low-bar work environment, Brister said the Milwaukee office is plagued with incompetence and waste.

She said she has reached out to members of Congress and to federal investigators to share her complaints.

“The only way you can bring about change is you’ve got to get rid of people on the top who are responsible for this and bring in a good professional group,” she said.  “If you don’t change the people on top, there won’t be a change.”

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.