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Senate committee probe into Social Security whistleblower retaliation continues

By   /   August 25, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 34 of 61 in the series Deadly Delays

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.

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, chairman of the Senate committee, on June 14 opened an inquiry into allegations of widespread misconduct and retaliation at ODAR’s Madison and Milwaukee operations.

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.

Photo socialsecurity.gov

ONGOING: A Senate committee continues its inquiry into the scandal-plagued Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, part of the Social Security Administration.

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.

RELATED: Who is protecting Social Security whistleblowers?

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.”

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.