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More retaliation despite investigation, Social Security office sources say

By   /   June 23, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 19 of 61 in the series Deadly Delays

MADISON, Wis. – The retaliation is continuing inside the Madison office that reviews Social Security disability claims, sources tell Wisconsin Watchdog.

Managers at the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR) are telling staff that turning over internal office information to congressional committees and news outlets can be a “fireable offense,” whistleblower Celia Machelle Keller and other informants told Wisconsin Watchdog on Thursday.

“I got a call from someone in ODAR and they told me that the people in the office have been told that I provided you (Wisconsin Watchdog) and the Senate (Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs) Committee unredacted copies of the (administrative law judge) notes and what was relayed is that Laura and Regional are looking to fire me,” Keller said. She referred to Madison Office Director Laura Hodorowicz and the SSA’s Region 5. The Chicago-based regional headquarters includes Madison and Milwaukee ODAR operations.

The documents in question are the hand-written hearing notes of Administrative Law Judge John Pleuss, in which Pleuss makes “highly inappropriate” comments about claimants appearing before him.

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

Pleuss has been the subject of a sexual harassment complaint and is accused of deciding disability cases based on the appearance and race of claimants.

Photo by as-coa.org

NO EXPECTATIONS: Social Security managers at a troubled disability claims review office in Madison are reminding employees that supervisors can and will ‘monitor’ their professional and personal information on work computers. The memo comes as whistleblowers say the retaliation against them is increasing.

A source with knowledge of the situation has told Wisconsin Watchdog that there is a “culture of corruption and cover-up” in the Madison office, and that it “goes all the way to the top.”

Wisconsin Watchdog does not identify sources that wish to remain anonymous due to the threat of retaliation. The documents obtained by this publication were redacted upon receipt, and did not include personally identifiable information – as noted in the original investigative report.

Government employees are bound by certain privacy considerations, but they also are under obligation to report waste, fraud and abuse.

That’s exactly what Keller and several other employees in the Madison and Milwaukee ODAR offices have done in recent months. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, chaired by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, has opened a formal inquiry into reports of misconduct and retaliation against whistleblowers.

Contrary to what the Social Security Administration has said, employees are free – and encouraged – to take allegations of wrongdoing at government agencies to congressional oversight committees. That includes potentially incriminating documents.

The SSA Office of Inspector General, according to sources, has opened an investigation into Pleuss, Hodorowicz and supervisor Wayne Gentz. An audit of the office also is expected to be completed.

Reached Thursday, Hodorowicz declined to comment. She referred Wisconsin Watchdog to the SSA’s communications director.

“Don’t contact me here. This is my personal cell number,” Hodorowicz said, notably perturbed.

The Madison office referred all questions to SSA spokesman Doug Nguyen, who has repeatedly said he cannot comment on “personnel matters.”

Responding to the release of Pleuss’ notes on claimants – the judge used terms like “buxom” and phrases like “skimpy top” to describe the people appealing their cases before him – some have suggested the ALJ has gotten a raw deal in the press coverage. They say Pleuss has an “expectation of privacy.”

But there is no expectation of privacy in ODAR employee computer policy.

A recent SSA employee memo, obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog, declares:

“A user has no expectation of privacy within SSA’s computer system network, which may be monitored for all authorized purposes including but not limited to ensuring that systems use is lawful and authorized, managing systems resources, protecting against unauthorized access, and verifying security procedures.”

In short, the agency says it has every right to monitor and seize any information from employee computers, “including personal information, placed on or sent over SSA’s computer network.” That information may be “examined, recorded, copied and used for authorized purposes.”

Meanwhile, whistleblower protection laws allow employees to report or testify about employer actions that are “illegal, unhealthy, or violate public policies,” according to the National Whistleblower Center.

Keller said she and other whistleblowers are being retaliated against, over and over again, but has little faith that there will be consequences for misconduct at the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review.

She said there is a cavalier attitude among managers. They’ve been down this road before.

“I don’t think they care. This has become a way of life for them. It is the norm for them,” the whistleblower said. “They’ve never been held accountable. What makes you think they’re going to be held accountable now.”

Part of 61 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’
  59. Social Security whistleblower calls out agency, media in receiving award from journalists
  60. SSA whistleblowers ask, where’s the justice?
  61. Probes into troubled Social Security offices crawling along


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.