MADISON, Wis. – In the wake of allegations of incompetence, corruption, and retaliation at Social Security disability review offices in Madison and Milwaukee, now come accusations of discrimination and reprisals against an openly gay employee in the Orland Park, Ill., Office of Disability Adjudication and Review.
Terry tells Wisconsin Watchdog that he was singled out because of his sexual orientation, threatened, and physically assaulted. And when he filed complaints, Terry said his managers pressured him to discharge the actions, ultimately retaliating against the whistleblower.
“This has been going on for so long. I have not had a decent night’s rest since I filed my complaint,” Terry said.
Like several other whistleblowers in the Social Security Administration’s Chicago-based Region 5, Terry says he has taken his long list of complaints to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. That committee, chaired by Sen. Ron Johnson, has opened a formal inquiry into the conduct of ODAR operations in Region 5.
Terry said it all began within the first week he began at the Orland Park office. He claims the office director there would make inappropriate “locker room” jokes, many of them sexual in nature, some of them about “people of different lifestyles.”
“I was not openly gay (in the office) until April 20, 2013, when a (supervisor) wanted to know why my voice was different,” he recalled. “I remember her telling me that her boyfriend worked in a pizza place, and she talked about his sausage. She said, ‘How come you never respond to my conversations when I talk to you freely?’ She said, ‘I’m dating this guy and he has the amazingest sausage I’ve ever seen.”
Terry then came out to his boss, saying he did not appreciate the constant sexually inappropriate jokes around the office.
He was named as a representative to the agency’s LGBT advisory council. On March 6, 2014, a fellow employee said he overheard Terry on a phone call making offensive comments about women. Terry claims he was falsely accused and tried to explain the situation to the employee, that he was discussing LGBT council business and was saying nothing offensive about women. He has an affidavit stating as much. The employee, according to Terry, then “exploded.”
“He said, ‘I don’t want your gayness thrown in my face anymore,” Terry said. “I said, “Is this what this is all about? First of all, me being gay has no bearing on my job.’ He was very threatening. I did not feel safe.”
Terry said he attempted to leave when a group supervisor grabbed him by the forearm and told him to stay seated in the supervisor’s office.
He filed a complaint.
Later that month, Terry alleges he was confronted by a federal protection officer in the men’s bathroom. The armed guard said, “I know what’s going on in the office,” according to Terry.
“He said, ‘I am a man and you are nowhere near a man,’” Terry said.
When he told a supervisor about the confrontation, the manager asked Terry if he had correctly heard the security guard.
“The Hearing Office Director said, ‘Are you sure you heard right? You know you’ve always been oversensitive,’” Terry recalled. “That’s the mantra whenever you bring a complaint, that you are ‘oversensitive.’ It’s their way of pushing it off.”
Not long after the incident, Terry said the supervisor asked him to discharge the complaint. Again, the office director accused the employee of being “oversensitive.”
“She said, ‘Do you really want me to do a formal investigation? You have filed complaints before and you have always discharged them.’ I wanted to say, ‘That’s because management intimidates me if I don’t,’” the whistleblower said.
“She said, ‘All will be forgiven and forgotten.’ I looked at her and said, ‘What did I do wrong?’”
This time, Terry persisted. But he said he paid the price.
When he wouldn’t cave, he said, his supervisor became very short with him. Terry said his workload increased and he received harder assignments. He was told he could handle it. Other SSA whistleblowers have told Wisconsin Watchdog they received the same treatment after filing complaints.
SSA dismissed his original complaint, he said, taking the face-value word of ODAR management. So he filed an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint.
Terry took his complaint to his union, the American Federation of Government Employees. He said he was told by a representative in Minneapolis that Agatha Joseph, president of AFGE Local 1395 in Chicago, would not allow the representative to get involved.
Then, Terry said an attorney at the national AFGE office told him that he had an excellent hostile-work-environment case filed before an EEO judge. But Joseph, again, declined to get involved.
Joseph told Wisconsin Watchdog Tuesday that the union does not, as a rule, represent employees in EEO complaints. She said she was not at liberty to talk further about the union’s activity in grievances.
Whistleblowers in Madison and Milwaukee have said the AFGE has been slow to act, or worse, has covered for management in misconduct cases.
SSA spokesman Doug Nguyen, repeatedly has said the agency is prohibited from commenting on specific personnel matters.
“However, we will not tolerate harassment, retaliation or other wrongdoing, and we take aggressive steps to investigate reports of inappropriate or illegal activity and address any findings,” he said in an email.
“Part of our focus is on creating a work environment where employees have effective mechanisms to report their concerns, whether to the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) or to higher level managers, and feel safe doing so. Misconduct – whether it be prejudice, partiality, bias, discrimination, retaliation or any other misconduct – have no place in our programs or in our workplace,” the spokesman added.
Terry was forced to represent himself. In discovery, he said SSA attorneys demanded and took his professional and personal information, including emails, Facebook posts, and tweets. Had he not acquiesced, Terry said, the agency threatened to ask the judge to dismiss the case.
“They broke into my Facebook account on my birthday while I was talking to family members about what was going on,” Terry said.
Amid the troubling allegations of sexual harassment, bribery, and retaliation at the Madison ODAR facility, managers sent out a warning memo about the agency’s technology policy.
“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,” the memo states.
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.
His physical and mental health compromised in the long battle, Terry said he finally threw his hands up and discharged his complaint. He was asked to do so, he said, while acknowledging he had not been under “intimidation and duress.” That, Terry said, was the saddest joke of all.
Two months after he discharged his EEO complaint, Terry said he saw his performance reviews, for the first time, drop from excellent to average. He said he was given no explanation.
“I asked, ‘Does this have anything to do with the EEO complaint?’ They said, ‘No comment,’” the whistleblower said.
“The agency is known for this,” Terry added. “They don’t let you go because you filed a complaint. They fire you because (they say) your performance slides.”
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