MADISON, Wis. — There is a “systemic problem of whistleblower retaliation” within the Social Security Administration, a U.S. Senate committee staffer tells Wisconsin Watchdog.
The observation underscores what several whistleblowers at the SSA’s Office of Disability Adjudication and Review say they have long experienced; it is a serious matter the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is investigating.
Johnson, R-Oshkosh, requested the agency’s “unfettered cooperation” in turning over documents related to the inquiry.
“I write to you concerning reports of whistleblower retaliation within the Milwaukee and Madison hearing offices of the Social Security Administration’s Office of Disability Adjudication and Review,” Johnson wrote in the letter to Carolyn Colvin, SSA’s acting commissioner.
He noted the multiple allegations raised by whistleblowers in Wisconsin Watchdog’s series, “Deadly Delays.”
“Despite the serious issues that these media reports highlight, SSA has refused to provide information to the committee about these personnel actions,” the senator wrote.
At the time, William “BJ” Jarrett, of the SSA’s national press office, told Wisconsin Watchdog the agency would respond to Johnson once officials have had time to review the letter and “gather the requested information.” Jarrett added what SSA officials have said at every turn, that the agency “cannot publicly address the allegations raised by employees as they are internal personnel matters.”
Johnson set a deadline of June 28. The SSA has missed that deadline by nearly two months, failing to turn over all of the information requested.
The Senate committee staff member said the inquiry is ongoing and SSA officials have been producing request documents on a “rolling basis.”
“We are in frequent communication with SSA and the Office of the Inspector General,” the staff member said. “We are putting pressure on the agency and working with the IG’s office making sure they are getting what they need.”
OIG agents have been at the Madison office this week, interviewing staff members at the ODAR facility and pressing forward with a misconduct investigation launched several weeks ago.
Since Johnson’s letter announcing the formal inquiry, one whistleblower has been fired, another walked out of the office by armed guards and stripped of her management duties, and several others, according to sources, placed on performance monitoring.
Earlier this month, Johnson and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, warned SSA officials not to retaliate against whistleblowers. But the senators don’t appear to have much authority to act on those warnings.
“We can shine light on what’s going on, but the committee itself, we don’t have mechanisms to do anything,” the Senate committee staffer said. “We can contact the inspector general and work with attorneys at the Office of Special Counsel, and they can help address those issues on a personal basis.”
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 earlier this month.
“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.
Ron Klym, a whistleblower and 16-year employee at the Milwaukee Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, said the decision to fire him during an ongoing investigation is clear-cut interference with that investigation. He remains out of a job.
The Senate committee staffer said it is the committee’s highest priority to continue to be “extremely aggressive and to make sure these whistleblowers aren’t experiencing retaliation on a daily basis.”
“There certainly are problems” at the SSA, the staff member said. “Our goal is to get the information, but our ultimate goal is to resolve any problems that exist in the agency.”
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