MADISON, Wis. – A whistleblower claims her health has rapidly deteriorated in the face of constant harassment and retaliation inside and outside the Madison Office of Disability Adjudication and Review.
ODAR lead case technician Celia Machelle Keller this week was placed on sick leave until the Social Security Administration’s Office of the Inspector General concludes its investigation into allegations of widespread waste, fraud and abuse at the troubled disability claims review facility.
Keller says the stress of constant harassment from managers and staff at Madison ODAR has exacerbated her migraine headaches to a debilitating level.
“After being harassed by email last week, my doctor said that was enough and told me she did not want me exposed to the work environment,” Keller told Wisconsin Watchdog.
Earlier this summer, an MRI found Keller’s brain dotted with 45 lesions, damage suspected to have resulted from the intense headaches, Keller said of her examination. The assessment was documented by her health-care provider.
This week, Kristina Trybek, a physician assistant at the Dean & St. Mary’s Outpatient Center, Neurological Institute, wrote the SSA recommending Keller stop working until the investigation is completed and “any harassment issues are resolved.”
Trybeck wrote that her patient’s migraines had been “relatively infrequent and manageable” before the alleged harassment ratcheted up.
“In the last six months, migraines have increased dramatically in frequency. Stress at work is a major contributing factor to the sudden frequency,” the health-care provider wrote. “Migraines are consistently triggered by her workplace environment.”
Keller and other whistleblowers in the Madison and Milwaukee ODAR facilities have told Wisconsin Watchdog the offices have long struggled with misconduct and cover-up. But things got much worse for the employees when they formally complained to federal investigators and became official whistleblowers, the insiders said.
Deborah Holland, a former group supervisor at the Madison office, was walked off the premises last month by two armed guards. She was placed on administrative leave and stripped of her managerial duties. The actions came hours after she went public with her allegations of corruption and retaliation.
Ron Klym, a long-time legal assistant at the Milwaukee ODAR and one of the whistleblowers who first brought to light allegations of misconduct and incompetence at the Milwaukee office, was fired last month. Klym is supposed to be protected under federal whistleblower laws.
Keller and others say the harassment and intimidation is constant from managers and staff members who fear the findings of a truly independent OIG investigation.
In her letter to the SSA, Trybeck wrote that Keller reports “workplace harassment as the source of her stress.”
“She tried to avoid the stress by working from home; however, she states she was harassed even at home via phone, email, and instant message. Therefore migraines are triggered even when working from home,” the physician assistant stated.
Keller claims the Madison office has long been a hive of corruption and cover-up. She and other whistleblowers allege Hearing Office Director Laura Hodorowicz operated a system of bribery, fueled by “sweeteners” and punishment for those who did and did not cooperate. They say Hodorowicz and others tried to cover up the misconduct of Administrative Law Judge John Pleuss, accused of deciding disability cases based on the appearance of claimants.
Things really got bad in the office, Keller said, after she was asked by the agency to testify to allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct surrounding Pleuss.
The judge was found to have described claimants with descriptors like “buxom,” “cute,” “innocent-looking,” even “gorilla-like” in his case-writing instructions.
Hodorowicz and group manager Wayne Gentz were removed from the Madison office last month, sources say. They reportedly remain with the agency, but it is not clear in what capacity. Pleuss has been taken off disability claims hearings for the rest of the year, but he still remains employed with Madison ODAR.
Keller sounds jaded and doubtful that justice will ever be served.
“The new management there is from the same region,” she said of SSA’s region 5, based in Chicago. Whistleblowers have accused Region 5 administrators of covering up misconduct at ODAR facilities.
Meanwhile, OIG will not provide updates on the status of the pending investigation.
“As you know, the issues are numerous and complex and will take time to thoroughly investigate,” an OIG agent wrote Keller in an email this week.
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