MADISON, Wis. – The first whistleblower who went public with allegations of misconduct in the Social Security Administration disability review system has been fired.
Ronald Klym, a 16-year employee with the Milwaukee Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, received a written dismissal Wednesday from the Social Security Administration Region 5 headquarters in Chicago.
The letter and the decision to fire Klym came from Regional Chief Administrative Law Judge Sherry Thompson. Klym’s dismissal letter arrived two days after U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson warned the federal agency that the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee would not tolerate retaliation against SSA whistleblowers. Johnson is chairman of the committee, which has opened an inquiry into allegations of corruption and cover-up in the Milwaukee and Madison ODAR offices.
Klym’s dismal occurred two days before U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin sent a sternly worded letter to SSA Acting Commissioner Carolyn Colvin noting “serious allegations of whistleblower retaliation in the agency.”
“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.
Still, Klym, who spent 24 years working for the federal government, is gone.
“They are the judge and jury making determinations without any reference to legality or proper procedure,” he said of SSA’s administrative staff.
Klym, a long-time senior case technician at the Milwaukee office, had been on administrative leave since late May after being notified that the agency was effectively preparing to fire him.
The proposal to terminate came a few weeks after Klym was featured in a Wisconsin Watchdog investigative story in which he alleged widespread misconduct in the Milwaukee office.
In that first story in Wisconsin Watchdog’s multi-part series Deadly Delays, Klym said things got rough for him at the office after he alerted senior officials and, later, lawmakers about a litany of conduct and due process issues at ODAR
“Absolutely. I am being punished because I am a whistleblower,” said Klym, who alleged harassment, additional work assignments and unreasonable deadlines.
Klym compiled records showing a massive backlog of disability claims cases in Milwaukee.
Records show cases from Green Bay, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and other smaller communities in the Milwaukee ODAR coverage area had waiting times longer than 650 days.
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.
In 2011, the inventory for the Milwaukee region’s disability claims appeal office was at approximately 2,200 cases; today it’s running at about 12,000, Klym said.
And Klym alleges a kind of “shell game” was being played with cases.
The Milwaukee office’s case disposition numbers have at times drastically improved because managers in the chain have dumped off scores of cases to other regional offices, he said.
“They are wholesale shipping cases out,” the senior legal assistant said. The impression is that the offices are performing at a better rate than they actually are. “When you ship 1,000 cases to somewhere else, then you do an audit, it looks better.”
Doug Nguyen, communications director for the Social Security Administration Chicago region, a six-state region that includes Milwaukee, said the agency acknowledges that Milwaukee ODAR has a “high average processing time for disability appeal hearings, and we are working to address the issue.”
“The Social Security disability program is an important resource for people with disabilities, and we work tirelessly every day to provide the best service possible,” he said.
Klym said SSA has worked tirelessly to target whistleblowers who have brought complaints calling out waste, fraud and abuse in the federal agency.
He said he has been denied due process as he raised due process concerns.
“I have always maintained that the retaliation aspect of my whistleblowing would be resolved once the report of the delayed cases, were investigated,” Klym said. “However, there has been no investigatory body inquiring at any time regarding that report provided to Deputy Chief Judge Allen over six months ago.”
“This is interference. They haven’t even started the investigation and they have interfered with this by my termination,” Klym said.
In his letter last week, Johnson reminded the SSA’s commissioner that federal law protects the right of all federal employees to provide information to Congress.
“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,’” he wrote.
“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.
Klym was an official whistleblower, like his fellow SSA employee Deborah Holland, a manager at the Madison ODAR facility.
Holland was placed on administrative leave just hours after going public with more allegations of misconduct and retaliation in the SSA system.
The group manager 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.
ODAR employees have taken their complaints of sexual harassment, corruption, and intimidation to SSA’s Office of the Inspector General 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.
Klym, Holland and others say they have been rewarded for fulfilling their oath to report misconduct with disciplinary action. Klym said three other whistleblowers in Milwaukee have been placed on performance monitoring. At least one other employee who complained about harassment and retaliation was placed on administrative leave.
Celia Machelle Keller, another Madison ODAR employee who was asked to testify in a harassment complaint, expressed her frustration with the process.
“The Senate is good at writing letters, but if there is no consequence then why care about the letters?” she said. “This agency is disgusting!”
It’s not clear what happens next beyond the warnings from the senators. OIG continues its investigation, sources say. The office does not talk about ongoing investigations.
“My dismissal is a blatant attempt by the agency to interfere with my efforts to bring ODAR issues to light, and now without any investigation into the due process delays identified … the agency has denied me my rights as an employee,” Klym said.
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