MADISON, Wis. – The administrative law judge accused of sexual harassment and of making “highly inappropriate” comments about claimants appears to have been suspended, according to a source close to the situation.
Wisconsin Watchdog has learned that Administrative Law Judge John Pleuss’ hearings in recent days have been canceled amid a looming Social Security Administration Office of the Inspector General investigation into the Madison Office of Disability and Adjudication Review, or ODAR.
Asked whether Pleuss had been suspended, an office employee who answered the phone Thursday would say only that Pleuss was out of the office. So, too, was Office Director Laura Hodorowicz. Asked whether Hodorowicz had been suspended, the employee said, “I can’t answer that,” but that the director is “out today, too.”
Neither Pleuss nor Hodorowicz returned calls from Wisconsin Watchdog seeking comment.
‘Culture of corruption and cover-up’
Wisconsin Watchdog first reported last week about new charges of “pervasive” sexual harassment, bribery and nepotism coming to light at the Madison ODAR facility. These accusations came on top of previous allegations of misconduct, harassment, and whistleblower retaliation at both the Madison and Milwaukee disability claims review offices.
“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 obtained internal documents showing what employees have described as “highly inappropriate” comments Pleuss has made about claimants appearing before him.
“Young, white (female); attractive brunette,” Pleuss wrote under “Initial Observations” in official hand-written 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.
A disability claims attorney told Wisconsin Watchdog this week that there has been concern for some time about Pleuss’ conduct. The attorney said cases that seemed strong were denied, while weaker cases were approved.
“This issue may explain a lot about that inconsistency,” the attorney said. “Given your reports, I will now be able to raise issues involving females. It should be interesting since I will be asking for copies of his notes on every denial. I’m sure that request will be denied and I may end up asking federal district court to issue orders for the release of the documents.”
The ODAR employee who spoke to Wisconsin Watchdog said the SSA offices in Milwaukee and Madison are “extremely hostile work environments for whistleblowers.” They also are closely connected by the same administrative players in the Chicago ODAR Region.
Reward and punishment
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.
Multiple sources have told Wisconsin Watchdog that, 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.
And a Madison office staff member said Hodorowicz has taken nepotism to a new level.
Wisconsin Watchdog reported Monday that Office of Inspector General agents are opening an investigation into the Madison office, particularly focusing on Pleuss, Hodorowicz, and Wayne Gentz, a group supervisor considered to be a Hodorowicz ally.
Also this week, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., 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 Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has been trying to get answers from the SSA since a staff-level briefing on May 9.
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