MADISON, Wis. – As the allegations of misconduct and retaliation mount inside Social Security disability claims review offices, new charges of “pervasive” sexual harassment, bribery and nepotism are coming to light at the Madison Office of Disability Adjudication and Review.
“There is a culture of corruption and cover-up, and that goes all the way to the top,” said an ODAR employee with knowledge of the situation. The staff member spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
Wisconsin Watchdog has obtained internal documents showing what employees have described as “highly inappropriate” comments Administrative Law Judge John Pleuss has made about claimants appearing before him.
“Young, white (female); attractive brunette,” Pleuss wrote under “Initial Observations” in official hearing notes. The claimants’ names and other personal information have been redacted.
“Young, white (female); long brown hair; attractive; looks innocent,” the ALJ wrote.
He described another claimant as “buxom,” and noted that a “young, white (woman) looks like a man.”
“Obese, young, white (female) skimpy black top,” he wrote of another claimant.
“Very black, African looking (female),” the ALJ wrote, and parenthetically he added, “(actually a gorilla-like appearance).”
In one document, Pleuss wrote, “I’ll pay this lady when hell freezes over!”
Pleuss is one of six administrative law judges at the Madison office. He has been the subject of an internal investigation into sexual harassment allegations, according to multiple sources.
The employee who spoke to Wisconsin Watchdog on condition of anonymity said Pleuss has acquired a reputation as “being sexually inappropriate.”
“It truly has become a national running joke,” the staff member said.
But there is nothing funny about the charge by those familiar with the administrative law judge and the “toxic environment” of the Madison office, that Pleuss has approved or rejected disability claims based on “how sexy he thought the claimant was,” the employee said.
The insider claims “sexual harassment of staff is pervasive and ongoing” in the Madison office. Other sources have told Wisconsin Watchdog as much.
Agency policy states that employees are “responsible for reporting to management” behaviors that “give reasonable concern for safety in the workplace.” That includes, “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other written, verbal, or physical harassment of a sexual nature.”
Still, the employee said Pleuss has never been disciplined, nor has he been removed from the office during the course of investigations into his conduct.
Pleuss could not be reached for comment.
Doug Nguyen, communications director for the Social Security Administration’s Chicago Region, referred Wisconsin Watchdog’s questions to the agency’s Office of Inspector General, which has “independent authority to conduct their investigations.” The OIG, however, does not comment on investigations.
“Although we are precluded by the Privacy Act from discussing employment issues regarding specific employees, SSA takes seriously its responsibility to abide by federal law, including that which protects whistleblowers from retaliation and all employees from discrimination,” Nguyen said.
ODAR whistleblowers have told Wisconsin Watchdog that they have repeatedly been subject to retaliation and intimidation for reporting waste, abusive behavior and other misconduct in their government offices.
Less than a month after Ron Klym was featured in a Watchdog.org special investigation, the senior case technician at the Milwaukee Office of Disability Adjudication and Review was told the agency that has employed him for 16 years is proposing to fire him.
Klym detailed the Milwaukee office’s growing backlog of cases. Wisconsin Watchdog obtained records of some of the more lengthy delays.
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.”
Madison ODAR whistleblower Celia Machelle Keller said she was questioned by Inspector General agents one week after going public with allegations and misconduct by her supervisors.
Multiple sources have told Wisconsin Watchdog that, Laura Hodorowicz, director of the Madison office, protects Pleuss and others in her inner circle.
The employee who spoke on condition of anonymity said Hodorowicz is fond of making “dirty backroom deals,” offering “cooperative” employees perks in the form of financial benefits and special privileges to maintain their loyalty and above all –silence — about misconduct in the office.
Eventually, the office director runs out of sweeteners, the employee said.
“When that happens , the threats begin. … She will threaten people’s jobs, tell them she won’t promote them, lower their performance reviews, say that she will give them a bad reference,” the insider said. “She will give them the worst work assignments in the office.”
Wisconsin Watchdog has obtained emails sent by Hodorowicz that appear to be threatening in nature.
Multiple employees say the office director has been the subject of several investigations into her conduct, in Madison and when she held the same position in Milwaukee. Each time, they say, her cadre of loyalists testify on her behalf. And, sources say, they are rewarded for their loyalty.
The Madison office staff member said Hodorowicz has taken nepotism to a new level. She hired the adult children of Bill Allen, an ODAR employee who refused to testify against her in a hostile work environment claim, according to the staff member with inside information. Office records also confirm the hirings. Following an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint, the supervisor’ son, Jason Allen, provided testimony helpful to Hodorowicz’s cause; Hodorowicz then hired Jason Allen’s wife, the source said. And Hodorowicz hired the daughter of a close friend. While the wife of Wayne Gentz, a group supervisor considered a Hodorowicz ally, also was brought in to do administrative work.
“She hired those people in violation of hiring rules. Rather than hiring disabled veterans or other qualified applicants, (Hodorowicz) manipulated the hiring rules to hire employee family members as rewards,” the source said.
Meanwhile, Pleuss’ wife works as a hearing monitor, as does Administrative Law Judge Thomas Springer’s adult daughter, according to records.
“We have this web of people all of whom have skin in the game,” the ODAR employee said.
Several ODAR employees in Madison, Milwaukee, and elsewhere, have taken their complaints to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. One whistleblower said the committee has been “very supportive” in pursuing her case.
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, a source close to the committee told Wisconsin Watchdog this week.
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.
But congressional committees investigating allegations of misconduct are not subject to Privacy Act restrictions. There is nothing in the law, according to the Senate panel, 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.”
The ODAR employee who spoke to Wisconsin Watchdog said stonewalling is something at which the agency excels. The same goes for setting examples of employees that blow the whistle, silencing those who speak up.
“I know the agency’s response to all the whistleblowers is intended to serve as a chilling effect to everyone else so they don’t come forward,” the insider said.
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