MADISON, Wis. — Longtime Social Security Administration legal assistant Ron Klym says he faithfully followed the federal code of ethics that requires government employees to “disclose waste, fraud, abuse and corruption to appropriate authorities.”
Now he’s out of a job.
Deborah Holland took the same oaths.
The SSA group manager at the Madison Office of Disability Adjudication and Review was walked out of her Madison office by armed guards, stripped of her management duties and placed on administrative leave.
Celia Machelle Keller, a legal assistant at the Madison ODAR facility, testified at the request of investigators in an office sexual harassment investigation.
She was long denied reasonable accommodations related to her ongoing health concerns — a medical condition, her doctor says, was the direct result of the stress she experienced in a hostile workplace.
There are many others experiencing various forms of discipline for blowing the whistle on waste, fraud and abuse in the SSA system, sources say.
But the agency, it seems, has brazenly punished people who are supposed to be granted whistleblower protection under federal law.
It’s what Klym describes as the “new normal” in whistleblower relations.
“That is, defiance of Congress — in the actions taken against the whistleblowers,” Klym said.
Last week, Wisconsin’s U.S. Sens. Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson warned the SSA they did not take kindly to “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,” said Baldwin, a Madison Democrat.
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.
But what is being done to shield the whistleblowers?
As of Monday, it seemed not much.
The Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal investigative and prosecutorial agency, is the enforcement arm of the so-called Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, signed into law by President Obama on Nov. 27, 2012.
“OSC’s primary mission is to safeguard the merit system by protecting federal employees and applicants from prohibited personnel practices, especially reprisal for whistleblowing,” the agency declares on its website.
But SSA whistleblowers tell Wisconsin Watchdog they have heard very little from OSC investigators in recent months. Some claim OSC officials have failed to respond to their questions or treated them rudely when they did return calls.
OSC spokesman Nick Schwellenbach said the agency doesn’t comment on individual cases.
“However, we prioritize the review of retaliation claims when there are imminent and/or recent severe adverse personnel actions that federal employees allege are taken in reprisal for whistleblowing,” he said in an email to Wisconsin Watchdog.
“If during an investigation, we believe the facts support a retaliation claim, we will attempt to restore the whistleblower to their jobs and obtain other appropriate corrective actions, which can involve seeking back pay for the whistleblower and discipline against managers. In appropriate cases, OSC can also seek a stay, which is a temporary hold on employment actions while we investigate,” Schwellenbach added.
At the same time, where is the Obama administration in all of this? The president is ultimately responsible for his agents and agencies under the executive’s command.
Donald C. Terry Jr., a senior case technician at the ODAR facility in Oak Brook, Ill., and SSA whistleblower, said he appealed to Obama administration officials about his harassment and retaliation claims. He says he received no relief.
Terry claims supervisors at the Orland Park., Ill., ODAR office made his life a living hell for eight years. Terry, who is gay, said 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.
The SSA’s Office of the Inspector General has for weeks been investigating the Madison ODAR facility, where an administrative law judge is accused of sexually harassing employees and writing outrageously inappropriate comments about claimants. The same judge, as of last week, was allowed by administrators to get back on the hearing schedule.
OIG does not comment on ongoing investigations.
Sources say the SSA has repeatedly snubbed the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s requests for information. The committee, chaired by Johnson, opened an inquiry into the Madison and Milwaukee ODAR operations in mid-June. More than two months later, the committee is waiting for documents.
Committee staff members could not be reached for comment Monday.
Meanwhile, Klym says “numerous Milwaukee ODAR staff members” who have accessed the “report corruption” link on the senate committee’s website have been placed under performance review. He said the employees are “gripped with fear.”
The many laws designed to protect federal employees who expose corruption have been routinely undermined, whistleblower law observers say.
Still, Klym draws hope from the past. SSA has been down this road before.
“In 2003 SSA refused to comply with repeated congressional demands regarding an audit concerned with evidence destruction and case delays. Because members of both parties asserted the rights of congressional committees and requests, SSA finally relented and complied by providing the incriminating report,” the whistleblower said. “Thus, as there was little reason for Congress to accept an agency’s intransigence then there is even less reason now to accept interference with an active investigation, while ignoring legitimate requests.”
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