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‘Culture of corruption and cover-up’ alleged in Madison Social Security office

By   /   June 10, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 13 of 58 in the series Deadly Delays

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.

Photo by Watchdog.org

INNOCENT? Social Security Administrative Law Judge John Pleuss is being investigated for “inappropriate” conduct, in part based on “Initial Observations” like this one he made about disability benefit claimants.

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.

RELATED: Social Security whistleblower now faces firing

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.”

RELATED: Social Security whistleblower now faces firing

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.

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.