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.
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.
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.”
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