In a sternly worded letter Friday to SSA Acting Commissioner Carolyn Colvin, Baldwin noted “serious allegations of whistleblower retaliation” at SSA’s Offices of Disability Adjudication and Review in Milwaukee and Madison.
“I will not tolerate retaliation or intimidation against whistleblowers who have come forward with information related to an ongoing investigation into ODAR operations and ask for your assurance that the Social Security Administration will take appropriate action putting an immediate stop to any such retaliation,” the Madison Democrat said.
Whistleblower Deborah Holland, a manager at the Madison Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, was walked out of her office by two armed security guards a week ago, at the request of the local ODAR’s chief Administrative Law Judge Debra Meachum.
Holland was placed on administrative leave, removed from her management position and stripped of all supervisory duties. The long-time SSA employee is being made a project manager for the Chicago Region 5 office, working under the same administrators she has testified against and who, she alleges, have protected Madison Hearing Office Director Laura Hodorowicz and staff manager Wayne Gentz.
“Additionally, I am aware of an email the whistleblower received asking if information discussed during a management meeting was shared outside the office,” Baldwin wrote. “Other employees of the Madison and Milwaukee ODAR offices have contacted me about potential retaliatory actions. I have relayed each of these individual claims to OSC (Office of Special Counsel) and I understand their individual cases are moving forward.”
In a recorded conversation, Meachum tells Holland, “I can’t always trust in your ability to keep sensitive information confidential.” The judge added that “other employees in office have alleged that you are creating a hostile work environment for them.”
No other employees were named.
Among the employees in the office are Hodorowicz, who is accused of bribing and punishing employees to hide corruption in the office. Or maybe Administrative Law Judge John Pleuss, who is accused of sexually harassing staff members for years and who was found to have written grossly inappropriate comments about disability claimants who have appealed their cases before him. Pleuss, as of last week, remained on the schedule to hear disability claims cases.
As Wisconsin Watchdog first reported in June, Pleuss in his notes to legal assistants described claimants as “attractive,” “innocent-looking,” “buxom.” In one case, he noted a “young, white (woman)”appearing before him “looks like a man.”
“Obese, young, white (female) skimpy black top,” he wrote of another claimant.
“Very black, African looking (female),” the judge wrote, and parenthetically he added, “(actually a gorilla-like appearance).”
In other “writing obstructions” penned by Pleuss to his legal assistants, the judge notes he is approving a female claimant’s appeal for disability payments because “she looks like she was ‘rode hard and put away wet.’”
“Last month, I wrote to you about the important racist and sexist claimant descriptions a Madison ODAR administrative law judge allegedly included in hearing notes. I also shared evidence of this important language provided by a Madison ODAR employee with the OIG,” Baldwin wrote.
The OIG has launched a widespread investigation into the Milwaukee and Madison offices, and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has launched an inquiry into the ODAR operations. Last week, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, chairman of the committee, sent Colvin a letter advising that the Senate panel would not tolerate retaliation against whistleblowers.
“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,” Johnson wrote.
Baldwin said the whistleblowers’ complaints “bring to light a long list of troubling allegations including misconduct, harassment, waste, fraud and abuse.”
“These federal employees are protected by federal law. Any attempt by management or the agency to prevent whistleblowers from communicating with my office or OIG is unacceptable,” Baldwin wrote.
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