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Social Security whistleblower questioned by investigators after going public

By   /   May 26, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 10 of 56 in the series Deadly Delays

UPDATED at 2:19 p.m. to include comment from OIG spokeswoman

MADISON, Wis. – One week after going public with allegations of misconduct and intimidation by managers at the Madison Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, Celia Machelle Keller had a visit from federal investigators peppering her with questions and making accusations of their own.

“I got home today (Wednesday) … and the dogs are going crazy,” Keller said. “Two guys are at my door. They gave their cards and told me they were with the (Social Security Administration) Inspector General’s office and they want to speak with me.”

Keller said it’s just more retaliation from a Social Security disability claims review agency that has come under fire for an array of conduct issues – including going after whistleblowers.

Watchdog.org file photo

INVESTIGATED: Social Security Administration whistleblower Celia Keller says she was interrogated at her home this week by SSA Inspector General agents, days after she went public with her allegations of harassment and intimidation at the Madison office.

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

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

Now, Keller claims the Inspector General’s office is dogging her because she took her complaints to Wisconsin Watchdog and to the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Keller, who did not want her name publicly disclosed in the first story last week for fear of reprisal, says she’s tired of living in fear.

“I’m scared to death to go into work tomorrow. What are they going to have waiting for me? Are they going to perp walk me out like they did the guy from Milwaukee?” she said.

Keller is referring to Ron Klym, a senior case technician in the troubled Milwaukee Office of Disability Adjudication and Review. Klym was the first Milwaukee ODAR whistleblower to go public with his allegations of lengthy case delays, inter-agency “shell games” of case transfers, and retaliation against employees who pointed out misconduct. Klym was temporarily placed on administrative leave shortly after he went public with the charges.

Klym also was subjected to an Inspector General investigation not long after taking his allegations of administrative misconduct to federal authorities.

Keller said the Inspector General agents told her they were investigating her for scheduling her son’s girlfriend, Danielle Bray, as a hearing monitor for disability claims appeals. The investigators took issue with what they characterized as a suspiciously higher amount of work Keller was providing Bray.

“They said, ‘Danielle Bray is scheduled for 12 days. Do you see how that looks suspicious?’” Keller said. The insinuation, Keller said, was that she was taking kickbacks for assigning Bray more work. Keller’s son and his girlfriend live with Keller and her husband in their McFarland home.

“They were out here for 30 minutes, drilling me, asking me, ‘Don’t you see how bad this looks?’” she said.

“They were questioning my integrity. I would never put my family in jeopardy for a few extra dollars.”

There’s apparently no policy against assigning family members work. Keller said several relatives of administrative law judges and supervisors at the Madison office work as hearing monitors and in other positions.

An official with the SSA Office of the Inspector General, citing the Privacy Act, said she could not confirm the existence of, or comment on any specific allegations involving any possible investigation.

“However, I can tell you that the Office of the Inspector General does have a role in the whistleblower process and we take whistleblower allegations very seriously,” said Tracy B. Lynge, communications director for the Inspector General’s office.

Keller said she provided the agents with scheduling documents and emails showing there was nothing untoward about the process. She sent Wisconsin Watchdog the same records. Everything looks in order, with Bray’s schedule approved by supervisors.

In one email chain in February, the director of the Madison office, Laura Hodorowicz, wrote a curt message threatening that she will “absolutely stop using” Bray after Keller complained that Bray was not getting as many hours as other monitors.

Keller previously told Wisconsin Watchdog that she and other staff members have been bullied and intimidated by Hodorowicz.  Keller 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,” Keller said.

Doug Nguyen, regional communications director at the Social Security Administration’s Chicago office, did not return a call seeking comment. He has declined comment in the past, saying the whistleblower allegations are “personnel matters.”

At the same time, Keller has received exemplary ratings in her performance reviews, even as investigators were called to look into the scheduling issues.

“Machelle exceeded expectations, both in terms of the volume of work she produced and the quality of what she did. She routinely pulled more than her fair share of cases,” her supervisor wrote in Keller’s appraisal in October 2015. She received a similar review in April 2016.

“How does a person get all 5s (the highest performance grade) on her employee evaluation and get accused of scheduling” irregularities? she said.

“Retaliation,” Keller answered her own question.

“I’ve never experienced anything like this in my 28 years of being a paralegal,” she said.

Part of 56 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

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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 the Investigative Reporters & Editors Network. 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.