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Social Security officials not answering questions about whistleblower retaliation

By   /   June 6, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 12 of 58 in the series Deadly Delays

MADISON, Wis. — As more and more whistleblowers step forward, the troubled Social Security Administration is clamming up.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in recent weeks has taken in a “lot of information,” a source close to the situation said. The committee has received complaints from several employees at the SSA’s Office of Disability Adjudication and Review since Wisconsin Watchdog first broke the story in early May about incompetence, misconduct and retaliation in the agency’s offices, the source said.

While SSA officials have provided committee staff members with a briefing on the million-plus case backlog in the disability claim system, they have gone silent when asked about retaliation, the source said.

Instead, the SSA is citing the Privacy Act, insisting it cannot disclose information to Congress unless the whistleblower signs a waiver or the chairman of the committee — in this case Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh — signs on.

Only one problem: the government agency is making it all up. There is nothing in the law, according to the Homeland Security committee, that erects such barriers to fact-finding.

AP file photo

SILENCE: The Social Security Agency has refused to answer congressional questions about charges of employee retaliation inside the agency.

“Unfortunately this is a tactic the (Obama) administration uses across the board,” the Senate committee source said. “It doesn’t exist in an agency that is making it harder for people like us to examine cases of retaliation.”

And now a whistleblower’s job hangs in the balance.

RELATED: Social Security whistleblower questioned by investigators after going public

As Wisconsin Watchdog reported late last month, Ron Klym, a senior case technician at the Milwaukee Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, was recently forced to sign his own employment death warrant.

Klym said he was called into the office of Chief Administrative Law Judge Christopher Messina.

“He had a stack of papers in front of him. I said, ‘Well, it looks like a disciplinary action. Can I speak to my union rep?’ He said, ‘This is not a disciplinary action. This is a proposal to terminate. I need you to sign off on this,’” Klym said.

The veteran employee of the Social Security Administration office that handles disability claim appeals was placed on administrative leave. He was told that Regional Chief Administrative Law Judge Sherry Thompson would make the final decision on the proposal within the coming weeks.

As of Friday, Thompson had not returned Klym’s messages seeking direction.

Klym, who claims he has endured several incidents of supervisor-driven retaliation since taking his complaints to federal authorities over the past couple of years, said he wasn’t surprised.

“Frankly, this is the epitome of how they do business,” he said.

In early May, Klym detailed the Milwaukee office’s growing backlog of cases. Wisconsin Watchdog obtained records of some of the more lengthy delays.

Dozens of cases on appeal took more than 700 days to complete. One Green Bay case clocked in at 862 days to dispose of. A Marquette request for benefits hit 1,064 days, and another was completed in 1,126 days.

Doug Nguyen, communications director for the Social Security Administration Chicago region, a six-state area that includes Milwaukee, 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.”

More problematic is what Klym calls the administrative “shell game.” He said the Milwaukee office’s case disposition numbers have at times drastically improved because managers in the chain have dumped off scores of cases to other regional offices.

“They are wholesale shipping cases out,” the senior legal assistant said.

The impression is that the offices are performing at a better rate than they actually are. “When you ship 1,000 cases to somewhere else, then you do an audit, it looks better.”

At least three other ODAR employees have confirmed Klym’s account.

Nguyen repeatedly has said the agency will not comment on what it deems “personnel issues.”

Now Messina is moving to have the whistleblower removed.

Another whistleblower in the Milwaukee office was disciplined shortly after she went public with her accounts of intimidation and harassment in the workplace. And a whistleblower from the Madison office, like Klym, suddenly finds herself the subject of an intensifying Office of Inspector General investigation.

Celia Machelle Keller, a lead case technician at the Madison ODAR operations, said she has suffered from debilitating migraines and an MRI recently found she had developed 45 spots on her brain precipitated by the painful headaches. She claims her health problems are a direct result of the intimidation and harassment she has been subject to ever since she testified in a previous case regarding misconduct and harassment at the office.

Keller recently earned a $1,200 performance bonus, according to internal emails, and has received only exceptional performance reviews.

Same with Klym.

Senate committee staff members have instructed Klym and other whistleblowers to contact the Office of Special Council, which has authority to assist government whistleblowers and to protect them from retaliation.

The next step, according to a source familiar with the Senate committee’s Social Security Administration complaint case file, is to up the pressure on the agency. That may include a formalized letter asking the SSA to cooperate in the release of documents and briefings, the source said.

“The whistleblowers have given us a lot of information and we are digesting what they are giving us,” the source said. “We continue to pursue lines of inquiry to get answers about what’s happening.”

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.