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.
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.
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.
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