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Senate committee presses for answers from troubled Social Security Administration

By   /   June 14, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 15 of 56 in the series Deadly Delays

MADISON, Wis. — Growing tired of an apparent “effort to delay,” Sen. Ron Johnson on Tuesday sent a formal letter to the Social Security Administration requesting the agency’s “unfettered cooperation” in turning over information related to allegations of misconduct and retaliation in SSA’s disability claims review offices.

“I write to you concerning reports of whistleblower retaliation within the Milwaukee and Madison hearing offices of the Social Security Administration’s Office of Disability Adjudication and Review,” Johnson wrote in the letter to Carolyn Colvin, SSA’s acting commissioner.

Johnson, chairman of the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has been trying to get answers from the SSA since a staff-level briefing on May 9.

Committee staff members have been looking into a raft of complaints brought forward by employees at the Milwaukee and Madison offices.

Among the more serious allegations include manipulation of cases, corruption, nepotism, sexual harassment, and intimidation and retaliation against employees who attempt to report misconduct.

The incidents of retaliation only increased, whistleblowers claim, after they took their allegations to Wisconsin Watchdog. In its series, “Deadly Delay,” Wisconsin Watchdog has uncovered multiple areas of potential misconduct, thanks to agency insiders who have shared their accounts and to the documents obtained to support their allegations.

Watchdog.org file photo

‘UNFETTERED COOPERATION’: Sen. Ron Johnson is requesting ‘unfettered cooperation’ from the Social Security Administration in the wake of  Wisconsin Watchdog’s investigation on alleged misconduct and whistleblower retaliation in Milwaukee and Madison disability claims review offices.

Johnson, R-Oshkosh, wrote that SSA officials have refused to answer questions about media reports that Milwaukee ODAR management placed senior case technician Ron Klym on administrative leave and, late last month, began the process to fire him.

Klym had told the Senate committee and Wisconsin Watchdog about significant case delays in Milwaukee and what he and others have described as a “shell game” in which management transfers backlogged cases to other SSA offices to make their poor performance numbers look better.

“Additional whistleblowers, including Celia Machelle Keller and Mary Brister, have similarly described experiencing retaliation as a result of reporting complaints to the same journalist,” Johnson wrote.

He noted that one week after Keller went public with her accounts of managerial misconduct and harassment in the Madison ODAR facility, she was interrogated by SSA Office of the Inspector General agents.

Days after Brister told her story of intimidation and retaliation, she was suspended five days and lost her telework privileges for a year.

“Despite the serious issues that these media reports highlight, SSA has refused to provide information to the committee about these personnel actions,” the senator wrote.

Instead, SSA subsequently wrote that “it is SSA policy that we must obtain such a request in a formal letter signed by Senator Johnson on official letterhead” and that “an e-mail from the committee staff member is insufficient and provides an opportunity for the inappropriate release of such information.”

But the agency has not cited any legal authority or written policy supporting its position, Johnson wrote. That’s because it cannot.

The Privacy Act of 1974, which SSA clings to, “unambiguously” exempts congressional committees from its limitations on disclosure.

Congressional committees and subcommittees are free to request and are supposed to receive such information from agencies. These committees are charged with examining the “efficiency and economy of operations of all branches of the government including the possible existence of fraud, misfeasance, malfeasance, collusion, mismanagement, incompetence, corruption or unethical practices, waste, extravagance, conflicts of interest …”

“I am disappointed that SSA has refused to cooperate with the committee’s request to better understand the serious allegations of whistleblower retaliation that has been raised,” Johnson wrote to the acting commissioner. “Given the clear statutory authority and legal precedent for SSA to fully cooperate with this inquiry, SSA’s refusal to answer basic questions and SSA’s demand for formal letters unfortunately suggest an effort to delay the production of information necessary for the committee to fulfill its oversight function.”

Now, the senator’s formal request seeks:

  • All documents and communications concerning allegations of whistleblower retaliation within the Chicago region, including but not limited to all personnel documents pertaining to Ron Klym, Celia Machelle Keller, and Mary Brister.
  • All documents and communications between or among the office of the acting commissioner, the counselor to the commissioner, the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, and the office of General Counsel, concerning the termination of Ron Klym.
  • An explanation of what SSA is doing to investigate the reported whistleblower retaliation within SSA ODAR.
  • An explanation as to whether SSA has disciplined any employees for retaliating against whistleblowers.
  • An explanation of how SSA will ensure that whistleblowers do not experience retaliation as a result of speaking to Congress or the media.

Johnson wants the information no later than June 28.

William “BJ” Jarrett, of the Social Security Administration’s national press office, told Wisconsin Watchdog that the SSA will respond to Johnson once officials have had time to review the letter and “gather the requested information.” Jarrett added what SSA officials have said at every turn, that the agency “cannot publicly address the allegations raised by employees as they are internal personnel matters.”

 

Wisconsin Watchdog reported Monday that Office of Inspector General agents have opened an investigation into the Madison office, particularly focusing on Administrative Law Judge John Pleuss,  Laura Hodorowicz, director of the Madison ODAR operations, and Wayne Gentz, a group supervisor considered to be a Hodorowicz ally.

RELATED: Ron Johnson: We’re tracking down abuse allegations in Social Security agency

One source with knowledge of the situation says the OIG agents from outside the Chicago regional operations, which include Milwaukee and Madison, will perform an audit of the Madison office.

Andrew M. Cannarsa, a spokesman for 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.”

Cannarsa noted the OIG does investigate alleged misconduct and alleged fraud by SSA employees, “and our Office of Audit conducts reviews of specific SSA hearing offices.”

One whistleblower recently told Wisconsin Watchdog there is a “culture of corruption and cover-up, and that goes all the way to the top.” 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.

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.

Read Sen. Ron Johnson’s full letter here.

Part of 56 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

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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 the Investigative Reporters & Editors Network. 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.