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Damage spreads at scandal-plagued Social Security office

By   /   September 7, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 36 of 61 in the series Deadly Delays

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.

Contributed photo

FALLOUT: Celia Machelle Keller, an employee and whistleblower at a Madison Social Security Administration office, claims her health has deteriorated after months of workplace intimidation and harassment.

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.

RELATED: Sources: Social Security judge accused of racial, sexual remarks removed from hearings

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.

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.