MADISON, Wis. – A federal employee who was fired for blowing the whistle on allegations of misconduct at a Milwaukee Social Security Administration office will receive no protection from the Office of Special Counsel – the agency charged with protecting whistleblowers.
Other whistleblowers at the Milwaukee Office of Disability Adjudication and Review are in the same predicament.
Ron Klym, a 16-year ODAR employee, was fired last month after being placed on administrative leave in late May. A proposal to terminate came a few weeks after Klym was featured in a Wisconsin Watchdog investigative story in which he alleged widespread misconduct in the Milwaukee office.
Because Klym in April filed a grievance with the American Federation of Government Employees, the union that represents Milwaukee ODAR employees, he will receive no relief from OSC.
“You are correct that OSC generally cannot take action where the aggrieved employee has filed a timely union grievance,” Eric Bachman, OSC’s deputy special counsel, Litigation and Legal Affairs, explained to Klym in an email last week. “If you have sought union representation but not filed a grievance, or if there is a new action that has not been grieved, we may be able to assist.”
So, it appears, the whistleblower is out of a job – and out of luck.
The long-time senior case technician said he filed the grievance with an AFGE union rep in Minneapolis out of “necessity.” SSA was once again moving to discipline him, this time with another suspension. He had experienced plenty of that since 2012, when Klym first took his complaints to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
“Only until the last instance did I file a union grievance. I had no other choice. So, by necessity, I disqualified myself this type of protection,” Klym said.
According to the OSC, employees who have experienced a “prohibited personnel practice” can follow one of three paths in seeking relief. They may appeal a disciplinary action to the federal Merit Systems Protection Board. They can go through the negotiated grievance procedure with a union representative. Or they can file a complaint with OSC.
“Individuals are limited, by law, to choosing only one of those forums,” OSC warns on its website.
OSC has the regulatory teeth to compel SSA to stop disciplinary actions while investigations are ongoing. Klym said Milwaukee ODAR employees have no friend in the local union representative, Taron T. Farrington.
Farrington was not elected by employees but appointed by the Chicago office. Klym and other whistleblowers say employees do not trust Farrington, claiming he has worked against their interest for the benefit of the ODAR and the Social Security Administration’s Region 5 headquarters. Farrington is the subject of harassment complaints, whistleblowers say. Klym received notice that the SSA was moving to fire him at the same time he was supposed to deliver documentation in the Farrington harassment case.
Klym has brought to light lengthy delays inside the disability claims review system. In early May, the whistleblower was featured in the first of Wisconsin Watchdog’s investigative series into ODAR. He provided documentation showing the delays.
Records show dozens of cases on appeal took more than 700 days to complete. One Green Bay case clocked in at 862 days to dispose of. A Marquette request for benefits hit 1,064 days, and another was completed in 1,126 days.
In 2011, the inventory for the Milwaukee region’s disability claims appeal office was at approximately 2,200 cases. As of this past spring, it was running at about 12,000, Klym said.
Klym said the Milwaukee office’s case disposition numbers have at times drastically improved because managers in the chain have dumped off scores of cases to other regional offices.
“They are wholesale shipping cases out,” the senior legal assistant said. The impression is that the offices are performing at a better rate than they actually are. “When you ship 1,000 cases to somewhere else, then you do an audit, it looks better.”
Klym claims he has been repeatedly retaliated against since alerting federal officials to problems at the Milwaukee office. To date, he said, SSA supervisors and regional managers have not asked him a single question about his allegations of due process violations.
Still, SSA’s Office of the Inspector General continues its investigation into complaints of widespread corruption and cover-up at the Milwaukee and Madison ODAR facilities. The Senate committee is conducting an inquiry into the offices.
Sources say Laura Hodorowicz, hearing office director at the Madison ODAR, and group manager Wayne Gentz are under particular scrutiny, both removed from the office. And Administrative Law Judge John Pleuss has been removed from hearing cases after Wisconsin Watchdog first reported he made sexually and racially charged comments about disability benefits claimants.
Hodorowicz led the Milwaukee office for years before taking the same position at the Madison office.
“The background to the Madison story and its removals is that those questionable management methods employed by the office director, Hodorowicz and her cronies, originated in Milwaukee.” Klym wrote in a recent letter to SSA Acting Commissioner Carolyn Colvin. “And, the needless due process delays, caused by shifting jurisdictions to burnish office statistics, guaranteed Hodorowicz would be named Director, when the Madison office opened, and no longer a satellite of Milwaukee ODAR.”
Madison ODAR whistleblowers allege Hodorowicz has operated a system of bribery and nepotism, rewarding those who helped her cover up office misconduct, and punishing those who couldn’t be bought.
SSA spokesman Doug Nguyen has repeatedly said the agency cannot comment on personnel matters, but that SSA takes seriously allegations of misconduct and whistleblower retaliation.
OSC’s primary mission, according to the agency, is to safeguard the federal government merit system by protecting federal employees and applicants from prohibited personnel practices, especially reprisal for whistleblowing.
Klym, whose faith that justice and accountability will be served is running on empty, said he never took OSC’s protection to heart.
“Even accessing OSC is quite difficult,” he said. “I tried to do it on four different computers, two on (SSA) system computers. I could get halfway into the application process and it froze up on me.”
“OSC is not built to serve the average person who may seek their assistance,” the whistleblower said.
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