MADISON, Wis. – The Social Security disability claims office that has been the subject of widespread misconduct allegations has been rocked by workplace hostility and threats of violence, whistleblowers say.
Wisconsin Watchdog has obtained several internal documents noting multiple hostile work environment complaints and investigations over the past 18 months at the Madison Office of Disability Adjudication and Review. But the problems, whistleblowers say, go back years.
One of the alleged repeated offenders is senior case technician Deborah Blum.
In one whistleblower’s report to federal agents, Blum is described as exhibiting a “pattern of unstable, volatile, aggressive behavior that completely disrupts productivity and creates a toxic environment.”
“Good people continue to leave the Madison Hearing Office because of this. Those that stay have become ill, extremely stressed, and ended up needing to take time off to get away from the chaos,” wrote former group manager Deborah Holland in the report to the Social Security Administration’s Office of Inspector General.
More than two weeks ago, Holland was walked out of her office by two armed guards, placed on administrative leave, and stripped of her managerial duties. The actions came just hours after she went public with her allegations.
As of Tuesday, Holland said she still has yet to be instructed on what her new duties are. She also had been knocked off the office’s internal network for much of the past couple days, although her name showed up as logged on early Monday. She believes someone else logged in using her name for reasons that are not entirely clear.
In January 2015, Holland wrote to her supervisors about an incident involving Blum.
“(O)ne of our employees (Blum) became verbally and physically aggressive to myself and another employee in the office,” she wrote in an email, noting parenthetically that “thankfully no one was physically struck but it came close.”
In the same email, Holland claimed staff were not protected by Hearing Office Director Laura Hodorowicz, who is the subject of numerous corruption allegations at the Madison office.
Fellow whistleblower Celia Machelle Keller was asked to file an incident report regarding Blum’s conduct. Keller wrote that she was speaking with an administrative law judge who was nearing retirement. Keller said she was brought in by management to assist the judge in closing out his cases, and she was asked to do so because Blum had failed to perform the tasks.
“She then stood up and got aggressive,” Keller wrote in the email, dated Jan. 22, 2015.
“Deb Holland came in and said to Deb Blum that she could hear her screaming at me from the bathroom, at the time Laura was coming down the hallway yelling things at Deb Holland,” Keller wrote. “Deb Blum was being escorted to Laura’s office disrespecting Deb Holland all the way down the hallway and I heard Laura yelling at Deb Holland for asking if Deb Blum could be sent home on administrative leave, Deb Holland stating it is office policy, Laura then turns to her and says this is my office to run.”
Keller said the judge had to step in between Blum, who was confronting Keller.
“Deb Blum is a very aggressive person …Very hostile person, very negative person, very disrespectful person both to her co-workers and her supervisors. She makes this place a very hostile environment,” Keller wrote in the report.
Other Social Security Administration employees have offered the same assessment.
Hodorowicz ultimately determined she would not discipline either Blum or Keller. Keller still chafes at Hodorowicz’s suggestion that she did anything warranting discipline in the heated exchange and that Blum inexplicably escaped punishment.
Holland said Blum’s hostile approach has been a recurring theme for years. She recalled an incident around 2009 in which Blum “stood over an employee with her fist balled up.”
“I was afraid Blum was going to hit her,” Holland said.
Contacted Tuesday at the Madison ODAR facility, Blum said she could not comment and referred all questions to the SSA’s regional office in Chicago. The spokesman there repeatedly has said the agency cannot address internal personnel matters but that it takes allegations of misconduct very seriously.
Last summer, Blum became increasingly hostile following some trouble she and her adult son were having with the law, sources say.
Court documents show that the 53-year-old Janesville woman was found guilty in Rock County Court on charges of resisting arrest and obstructing an officer.
The incident appears to stem from criminal acts involving her son, Evan Douglas Blum, 24, also of Janesville. Evan Blum was found guilty of multiple felonies, including possession with intent to deliver between 2,500 and 10,000 grams of marijuana, adjudged delinquent possession of a firearm, and the sale/delivery/possession of a firearm silencer, according to online court documents.
He was originally charged with five other felonies and misdemeanors in July 2015, with bond set at $75,500. Last month, Evan Blum was sentenced to 10 years in prison and several more years supervision on the three counts, each count concurrent, according to court records.
Holland said several Madison ODAR staff members approached her complaining about Blum’s conduct following the July 2015 arrests.
At one point, Holland said she picked up the phone to dial 911 when Blum became hostile in her office and refused to leave.
Yet, Holland said, her supervisors asked her how she could have better resolved particular exchanges with Blum.
Employees who begged their supervisors to do something about a person creating a hostile work environment were punished, while the perpetrators were protected, Holland and other Social Security Administration sources said.
Holland had had enough.
Not long after she was reprimanded for her requests that something be done about Blum, Holland took her complaints to the Office of the Inspector General and other federal authorities.
Her report includes allegations of misconduct by several managers, administrative law judges, regional supervisors, and legal assistants. The document alleges that Blum:
*Has committed time and attendance fraud. “She signs in earlier than she arrives for duty and leaves before the end of her shift, but claims a full day work.”
*Continually offloads her work to others, and becomes volatile with them if they object.”
*Bullies employees to a degree that makes them afraid to come to work.”
The report also alleges that Blum has used “government time, equipment, and property to work on the legal defense of herself and her son.”
Holland alleges Gentz has a “lengthy history of aggressive behavior” toward her and ODAR staff members.
“I have worked with him for almost nine years. He owns firearms and he has threatened to bring them into the office and use them on employees,” Holland said. She has provided federal agents with emails and other documents that she says back her claims about Gentz’s threatening conduct. She provided an investigative document accusing Gentz of making a threat of violence against an employee who had filed a harassment complaint and was granted an Equal Employment Opportunity hearing. In another case, according to the document, Gentz made threatening comments about bringing in a knife and a gun to “use on” an ODAR employee he was angry at.
Gentz and Hodorwicz also like to pull out their “voodoo dolls” to make a point about what they’d like to do to “certain employees,” Holland wrote in her federal complaints.
“They use them to represent employees in the Madison office and regional office,” Holland wrote. “When I came back in October, (Wayne) had gotten a new doll that was clearly meant to represent me. Wayne took the doll and punched it over and over again. Laura was just sitting there, and they both laughed.”
Both employees have cited the agency directive that they not speak to the press.
Whistleblowers have alleged a “culture of corruption and cover-up” at both the Madison and Milwaukee ODAR operations, and they assert the misconduct goes all the way to the top.
While OIG and the federal Office of Special Counsel continue their investigations into the many complaints, whistleblowers tell Wisconsin Watchdog that they are growing increasingly frustrated. They fear more of the same coming – cover-ups and no justice.
“We see a pattern where people who are abusive are protected and people who report that abuse are punished,” one ODAR source told Wisconsin Watchdog. “It’s like a giant dysfunctional family.”
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