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Who is protecting Social Security whistleblowers?

By   /   August 22, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 31 of 61 in the series Deadly Delays

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.

Contributed photo

WHISTLEBLOWER JUSTICE? Social Security Administration group manager Deborah Holland brought allegations of corruption and cover-up in the Madison ODAR facility to light. She has since been 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.

RELATED: Openly gay whistleblower at Social Security office claims intimidation, retaliation

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.

Contributed photo

MORE RETALIATION: Federal whistleblower Ron Klym says some of his colleagues at the Milwaukee ODAR office are being punished for trying to report misconduct.

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.”

Part of 61 in the series Deadly Delays
  1. Deadly Delay: Whistleblower alleges misconduct, incompetence in Social Security office
  2. Johnson seeks answers to Social Security whistleblower’s charges
  3. Social Security disability program has plenty of problems elsewhere
  4. Social Security whistleblower placed on administrative leave
  5. Social Security disability agency has history of punishing whistleblowers
  6. Senator to Social Security Administration official: ‘I would say the system is rigged’
  7. Whistleblower: ‘I want to do my work without fear of retaliation’
  8. Social Security whistleblowers ‘coming out of the woodwork’
  9. Social Security whistleblower suspended after going public with complaints
  10. Social Security whistleblower questioned by investigators after going public
  11. Social Security whistleblower now faces firing
  12. Social Security officials not answering questions about whistleblower retaliation
  13. ‘Culture of corruption and cover-up’ alleged in Madison Social Security office
  14. Ron Johnson: We’re tracking down abuse allegations in Social Security agency
  15. Senate committee presses for answers from troubled Social Security Administration
  16. Sources: Social Security judge suspended in wake of Madison scandal
  17. Attorney seeks appeal of decisions by Social Security judge accused of ‘sexy’ comments
  18. Social Security appeals judge pleads guilty to retaliation charge
  19. More retaliation despite investigation, Social Security office sources say
  20. Openly gay whistleblower at Social Security office claims intimidation, retaliation
  21. Wheels of justice turn frustratingly slow for Social Security whistleblowers
  22. Baldwin joins Johnson in calling for ‘immediate action’ on Social Security misconduct claims
  23. Documents: Social Security judge wrote claimant was ‘rode hard and put away wet’
  24. Social Security judge investigated for harassment heading back to hearings
  25. Social Security judge accused of misconduct refuses to step aside, sources say
  26. Whistleblower at scandal-plagued Social Security office seeks restraining order against manager
  27. Whistleblower report alleges widespread waste, fraud, abuse at Social Security office
  28. Sen. Johnson to Social Security commissioner: Retaliation will not be tolerated
  29. Baldwin warns Social Security Administration not to retaliate
  30. Social Security Administration fires whistleblower
  31. Who is protecting Social Security whistleblowers?
  32. Sources: Social Security judge accused of racial, sexual remarks removed from hearings
  33. Social Security office director removed from Madison facility, sources say
  34. Senate committee probe into Social Security whistleblower retaliation continues
  35. Madison Social Security office like ‘giant dysfunctional family,’ source says
  36. Damage spreads at scandal-plagued Social Security office
  37. Fired Social Security whistleblower gets no help from federal whistleblower protector
  38. One month later, Social Security whistleblower still without job, pay, answers
  39. Federal agents stepping up investigation into troubled Social Security offices
  40. Investigation into troubled Social Security offices in a ‘holding pattern’
  41. Recent weeks bring shake-up at scandal-plagued Social Security offices
  42. Top judges resign at troubled Social Security Chicago headquarters
  43. Social Security chief judge retiring amid cloud of scandal
  44. Troubled Social Security disability claims agency promotes ‘positive organization culture’
  45. Senate inquiry into scandal-plagued Social Security offices plods along
  46. Social Security whistleblower: ‘Everything has been compromised’
  47. Sources: Social Security judge accused of sexual harassment removed from Madison office
  48. Fired Social Security whistleblower won’t be taking whistleblower protection training
  49. Letter: Social Security judge under fire granted power to decide
  50. Sources: Social Security judge accused of deciding cases on sex appeal retires
  51. Johnson seeks GAO review of alleged Social Security ‘shell game’
  52. Social Security judge demanded $65,000 expanded bathrooms
  53. Investigation finds abuse, law-breaking, no retaliation at Madison Social Security office
  54. Report: Social Security managers gambled, watched Packers at Lambeau on taxpayer dime
  55. Inspector General releases major findings of probe into troubled Social Security office
  56. Social Security whistleblower waiting for answers in privacy breach case
  57. A whistleblower’s story: Paying the price for shining a light
  58. Fired SSA employee featured in Watchdog investigation is ‘Whistleblower of the Year’
  59. Social Security whistleblower calls out agency, media in receiving award from journalists
  60. SSA whistleblowers ask, where’s the justice?
  61. Probes into troubled Social Security offices crawling along

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M.D. Kittle is bureau chief of Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment Reporter for Watchdog.org. Kittle is a 25-year veteran of print, broadcast and online media. He is the recipient of several awards for journalism excellence from The Associated Press, Inland Press, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, and others. He is also a member of Investigative Reporters & Editors. Kittle's extensive series on Wisconsin's unconstitutional John Doe investigations was the basis of a 2014 documentary on Glenn Beck's TheBlaze. His work has been featured in Town Hall, Fox News, NewsMax, and other national publications, and his reporting has been cited by news outlets nationwide. Kittle is a fill-in talk show host on the Jay Weber Show and the Vicki McKenna Show in Milwaukee and Madison.