MADISON, Wis. — U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson says his Senate committee will continue to look into allegations of government bureaucrats retaliating against whistleblowers.
The Oshkosh Republican, chairman of the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, on Monday addressed the growing scandal inside Social Security disability claims review offices. Johnson joined Wisconsin Watchdog on “Madison in the Morning” on NewsTalk 1310 WIBA.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin Watchdog has learned from sources that agents from an outside region of SSA’s Office of the Inspector General are launching an investigation into the Madison Office of Disability Adjudication and Review following Wisconsin Watchdog’s latest report on allegations of sexual harassment, bribery and nepotism at the office.
“Let’s first talk about how rampant retaliation against whistleblowers in the federal government is,” Johnson said. “You have these massive bureaucracies and you see these abuses like with the VA (Veterans Affairs) in Tomah or now with the SSA.”
The senator referenced the scandal-plagued Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center. The Homeland Security Committee recently conducted a field hearing in Tomah, as it released a 359-page report detailing allegations of abuse, misconduct and widespread retaliation at the hospital.
“You’ve got these massive bureaucracies, they don’t work well, they’re not effective, there’s potential favoritism and abuse of the system,” Johnson added. “And then when people come forward to report it their careers are crushed, they’re retaliated against, even though we literally have laws in place for over 100 years protecting the whistleblowers.”
Multiple employees at ODAR operations in Madison and Milwaukee tell Wisconsin Watchdog they have been harassed, intimidated and retaliated against for blowing the whistle on misconduct. Many of them have taken their complaints to the Senate committee.
“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 told Wisconsin Watchdog in a story published Friday. 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 Madison ODAR Administrative Law Judge John Pleuss has made about claimants appearing before him.
In his “Initial Observations,” part of the official hearing notes, Pleuss described claimants’ as “attractive,” “buxom,” “innocent”-looking, according to the records.
“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!”
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.
Sources allege the office director and another top supervisor have led a workplace replete with bribery, nepotism and punishment for those who don’t go along with the “system.”
Now Wisconsin Watchdog has learned that Office of Inspector General agents have opened an investigation into the Madison office, particularly focusing on Pleuss, Laura Hodorowicz, director of the Madison ODAR operations, and Wayne Gentz, a group supervisor considered to be a Hodorowicz ally.
One source with knowledge of the situation says the OIG agents, from outside the Chicago regional operations that include Milwaukee and Madison, will perform an audit of the Madison office.
Andrew M. Cannarsa, of the OIG’s communications division, said he could not “confirm the existence of, or comment on, any specific allegations we have received or investigations we may be conducting, per the Privacy Act of 1974 and SSA regulations.”
Johnson urged ODAR employees with information concerning waste, fraud and abuse to contact the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee website for whistleblowers.
Visit the website here.
“We’re putting it up and more government employees are availing themselves,” the senator said. “So you can actually take the first step at solving any problem in the federal government, which is shining some light on the situation so the agencies and departments admit that they have a problem and are not allowed to retaliate against the courageous whistleblowers that come forward.”
Wisconsin Watchdog’s Benjamin O’Connell contributed to this story.
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