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.
“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.
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.”
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