MADISON, Wis. – A federal investigator was sent to the embattled Milwaukee Office of Disability Adjudication and Review last week, sources tell Wisconsin Watchdog.
An agent from the Social Security Administration’s Office of the Inspector General has been conducting interviews on site, insiders said.
Managers and staff members at the ODAR operation, which oversees review of Social Security benefits claims, are accused of incompetence, misconduct and retaliation. Managers there and at the Social Security Administration’s Region 5 headquarters in Chicago are accused of retaliating against whistleblowers.
Over one month ago, the SSA fired Klym, a 16-year employee at the Milwaukee ODAR. Klym’s dismissal letter arrived two days after U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson warned the federal agency that the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee would not tolerate retaliation against SSA whistleblowers. Johnson is chairman of the committee, which has opened an inquiry into allegations of corruption and cover-up in the Milwaukee and Madison ODAR offices.
“It is over a month after termination; my pay, leave, personal possessions are all in limbo,” Klym wrote in an email. “No answers, just that my harassment continues after being removed. And, the documentation can be provided regarding what could be deemed as continued incompetence, or plain contempt.”
Klym, a senior case technician, had been on administrative leave since late May after being notified that the agency was effectively preparing to fire him.
The 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.
In that first story in Wisconsin Watchdog’s multi-part series Deadly Delays, Klym said things got rough for him at the office after he alerted senior officials and, later, lawmakers about a litany of conduct and due process issues at ODAR
“Absolutely. I am being punished because I am a whistleblower,” said Klym, who alleged harassment, additional work assignments and unreasonable deadlines.
Klym compiled records showing a massive backlog of disability claims cases at the Milwaukee ODAR.
Records show cases from Green Bay, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and other smaller communities in the Milwaukee ODAR coverage area had waiting times longer than 650 days.
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 spring, it was running at about 12,000, Klym said.
And Klym alleges a kind of “shell game” was being played with cases.
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, he said.
OIG agents have been investigating the Madison Office of Disability Adjudication and Review for the past several weeks. Whistleblowers allege the office is a hive of corruption and cover-up, a hostile workplace boiling over with harassment, intimidation, bribery, nepotism, and retaliation.
The most salacious allegations involve Administrative Law Judge John Pleuss, accused of sexually harassing staff and writing grossly inappropriate comments about Social Security benefits claimants. More so, Pleuss is accused of awarding benefits – or not awarding them – based on claimants’ appearance.
Pleuss has been removed from the hearing schedule, but remains in the office, according to multiple sources. Hearing Office Director Laura Hodorowicz was removed from the office, as was group supervisor Wayne Gentz, pending the outcome of the investigation.
Whistleblower Deborah Holland, a manager at the Madison ODAR, was walked out of her office on Aug. 12 by two armed security guards, at the request of the local ODAR’s chief Administrative Law Judge Debra Meachum.
Holland was removed from her management position and stripped of all supervisory duties. She was reassigned to the Chicago Region 5 office, working from her home while the investigation continues.
Doug Nguyen, SSA Region 5 communications director, has repeatedly said the agency cannot comment on employment issues. But SSA, according to the spokesman, “takes seriously its responsibility to abide by federal law, including that which protects whistleblowers from retaliation and all employees from discrimination.”
Yet, one whistleblower has been fired and another has lost her management position.
Sources from the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee told Wisconsin Watchdog that they received an update from SSA last week. They said the OIG investigation is ongoing and they do not know when it will end. While the staff members say the SSA is cooperating, the agency is nearly three months late on filling the request for records sought by Johnson and the Senate committee.
“The impression we get is they are taking it seriously, that they are trying to figure out what is happening there,” once committee source said.
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