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.
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.
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.”
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