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.
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.
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.
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