MADISON, Wis. – Ron Klym is facing some anniversaries he’d rather not remember.
They remind him that the wheels of justice roll slowly, and that those wheels have often rolled over whistleblowers in their way.
It was five years ago Monday that Klym, a senior case technician at the Milwaukee Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, put together a file of extremely long backlogged cases.
Many claimants in the Social Security disability benefits system were waiting nearly two years to get a hearing before ODAR administrative law judges.
Klym’s records showed cases from Green Bay, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and other smaller communities in the Milwaukee ODAR coverage area had even longer backlogs in recent years.
On July 11, 2011, 305 of the oldest 600 cases were in Green Bay; 203 of them were in Marquette, Mich., and 62 of the cases came from Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.
Dozens of cases on appeal took more than 700 days to complete. One Green Bay case clocked in at 862 days to dispose of. A Marquette request for benefits hit 1,064 days, and another was completed in 1,126 days.
“We had two clients who stopped in the office yesterday wondering what’s going on, and they have been waiting for 21 months,” Jessica Bray, partner at Upper Michigan Law in Escanaba, Mich., told Wisconsin Watchdog in early May. Her colleague handled the noted cases that topped 1,000 days. “I sent a letter to the Milwaukee office, but I don’t think it’s going to do any good. Those cases haven’t even been assigned yet.”
For the period ended March 25, the average wait from hearing request through disposition of the case was 601 days, according to internal documents. That’s nearly 20 months. It’s up to 618 days now, according to a Social Security Administration official.
Klym said he received nothing but excuses or cover-ups from management in Milwaukee, and at the regional office in Chicago. The backlogs continued.
In 2011, the inventory for the Milwaukee region’s disability claims appeal office was at approximately 2,200 cases; in late April, it was running at about 12,000, Klym said.
In a May 4 Wisconsin Watchdog investigative report, Klym said the long delays were impairing applicants’ civil rights. While those seeking Social Security disability benefits don’t have an unquestioned right to the payments, they do have a right to due process, he said.
“No one can guarantee the benefit. I know a case where someone has filed for a benefit 26 times,” Klym said. “It’s not the result, it’s the opportunity. If your opportunity has been waylaid, to paraphrase (George) Orwell, we’re all equal, but some are more equal. That’s a process issue.”
In August 2012, Klym took an updated report of backlogged cases and allegations of nepotism to Sen. Ron Johnson’s office. Social Security Administration officials assured the Wisconsin Republican that there were no major problems, Klym said.
The matter was quietly resolved.
But the backlogs and personnel problems continued, Klym said. And the retaliation began.
Fed up, Klym and other ODAR whistleblowers took their allegations to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, chaired by Johnson. They also told their stories of ODAR incompetence, misconduct and retaliation to Wisconsin Watchdog.
The Social Security Administration’s Office of Inspector General has been conducting an investigation into a litany of misconduct accusations in the Madison Office of Disability Adjudication and Review since whistleblowers there claimed an administrative law judge sexually harassed employees and wrote wildly inappropriate comments about claimants. More so, whistleblowers accuse the judge of deciding cases based on the appearance of claimants. And they allege institutional bribery and nepotism.
Another whistleblower at a suburban Chicago ODAR facility alleges discrimination based on his sexual orientation.
Klym has filed a complaint alleging racially and sexually inappropriate comments in the Milwaukee office.
There has been no resolution, only retaliation, Klym said.
Shortly after going public with his allegations, the chief administrative law judge in Milwaukee placed Klym on administrative leave pending the judge’s proposal to remove the legal assistant from the position he’s held in good standing for 16 years.
The delays continue, this time personally for Klym, as he plays the waiting game on his future with the Social Security Administration. Management has delayed resolution of Klym’s disciplinary process beyond the prescribed time frame. And he asserts the deck is stacked against him, with his case led and assisted by ODAR agents he has criticized.
July 22 marks the one-year anniversary of the day SSA regional agents paid a call on his home.
He said within 18 hours of his email to the Social Security Administration attorney about the case backlogs, two inspector general officers “were investigating me over a broken computer.”
Klym was at home in his pool when the agents came calling.
“They took me out of my pool and asked me questions for an hour and a half, and they requested to search my apartment,” he previously said.
He was accused of breaking his workstation keyboard and causing “great anxiety” to his fellow employees. Klym said the flimsy equipment fell onto the floor and broke apart, and that if he had caused such anxiety to his co-workers, management would not have allowed him to report for work the next day.
Klym and other whistleblowers who risked their positions to bring their accusations forward, are frustrated by what they consider a lack of movement on the part of the committee and other federal oversight agencies.
“Some people are second-guessing their decisions to come forward (as whistleblowers),” Klym said.
The Senate panel’s inquiry into the SSA is ongoing and remains a priority, according to a committee aide.
“The SSA has indicated to us they will cooperate. They are in the process of gathering documents to fill our request,” the source said. “It’s not unusual for this to take time.”
But the Social Security Administration has exceeded its deadline by two weeks.
The senator set a deadline of June 28 for a full response.
Johnson is giving the Social Security Administration “a little” more time to meet the request, the committee staffer said.
Even if he is allowed to return to his assigned duties, Klym said he believes ODAR managers will find some pretext to remove him when the lights of the federal investigation are turned off.
“SSA will find its way to render its revenge on those named as whistleblowers in ways that make the overt actions in Madison (ODAR) seem like child’s play,” he said.
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