MADISON, Wis. – In the wake of allegations of retaliation against whistleblowers at a scandal-plagued Social Security Administration office, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson is warning the agency that such actions will not be tolerated by his Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
In a letter Monday to SSA’s acting commissioner Carolyn Colvin, Johnson, R-Oshkosh, wrote that the “apparent attempt to identify and possibly prevent employees from communicating with Congress is unacceptable and alarming, given your assurances to the committee – as recently as last week – that SSA does not tolerate whistleblower retaliation.”
“I ask that you immediately direct all SSA officials in the leadership chain of command for Madison (Office of Disability Adjudication and Review) hearing office to cease all attempts to identify officials who may be providing information to Congress or the Office of Inspector General, as well as any other potential retaliatory actions,” wrote Johnson, chairman of the Senate committee.
“The committee will not tolerate any efforts silence or retaliate against SSA whistleblowers.”
Johnson’s letter follows an incident Friday when Madison ODAR manager and whistleblower Deborah Holland was placed on administrative leave just hours after going public with more allegations of misconduct and retaliation in the SSA system.
Holland was walked out of her office by two armed security guards, at the request of the local ODAR’s chief Administrative Law Judge Debra Meachum.
Meachum told the long-time SSA employee she is being removed from her management position and stripped of all supervisory duties and placed on administrative leave for the rest of day. Holland is being made a project manager for the Chicago Region 5 office, working under the same administrators she has testified against and who, she claims, have protected Madison Hearing Office Director Laura Hodorowicz and staff manager Wayne Gentz.
“This isn’t just retaliation against me … it’s a clear ploy to protect Wayne (Gentz) when he appears in court a week from today,” Holland told Wisconsin Watchdog. “They want him to say that I was removed so he can use that in his defense.”
On Thursday, Holland sought and received a temporary restraining order against Gentz. He has a “lengthy history of aggressive” and threatening behavior toward ODAR staff members, Holland and other whistleblowers told Wisconsin Watchdog. Some of those accusations are documented in a report to SSA’s Office of Inspector General.
ODAR employees have taken their complaints of sexual harassment, corruption, and intimidation to the OIG and the Senate committee. In doing so, they have been officially designated government whistleblowers and afforded all of the protections therein.
“Since then, it appears that the leadership in the Madison office has attempted to prevent further disclosures and identify employees who may be sharing information with Congress or the Office of the Inspector General,” Johnson wrote to the acting commissioner.
Managers, including Holland, received an email from Meachum asking who leaked information she considered confidential to the press.
“Since our meeting on August 9th, did any of you share any of this information with someone outside the Madison team?” Meachum wrote. “Again, I am talking specifically about the discussion we had Tuesday afternoon about Judge Pleuss and his cases. Please respond immediately – yes or no.”
Meachum referred to Administrative Law Judge John Pleuss, who was found to have written sexual and racial comments about claimants and who is alleged to have sexually harassed staff members for years.
Meachum, while demanding Holland leave the Madison office Friday, said she “can’t always trust in (Holland’s) ability to keep sensitive information confidential.” She said she knows Holland claims to be a whistleblower. The conversation was recorded, and Holland is indeed a whistleblower.
“Federal law protects the right of all federal employees to provide information to Congress,” Johnson wrote. “Specifically, the law states that ‘the right of employees, individually or collectively, to petition Congress or a member of Congress, or to furnish information to either house of Congress, or to a committee or member thereof, may not be interfered with or denied.’”
“SSA employees have the right to talk to Congress and to provide Congress with information without fear of retaliation or questions about their communications,” Johnson added.
Johnson also demands that the acting commissioner “produce all documents and communications concerning the administrative leave and other personnel actions against managers in the ODAR hearing office taken on or about August 12, 2016.”
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