MADISON, Wis. – The Social Security Administration’s troubled Region 5 headquarters in Chicago has apparently gone through a major shake-up in recent weeks, according to sources close to the situation.
Deborah Giesen – the regional attorney accused by multiple whistleblowers of covering up corruption and retaliation at several SSA Offices of Disability, Adjudication and Review – is moving from her management position into a non-managerial administrative law judge post at the Orland Park, Ill., ODAR facility, an insider tells Wisconsin Watchdog.
Dean Syrjanen had served as hearing office director at the Oak Brook, Ill., ODAR until shortly after agents from the SSA’s Office of the Inspector General’s Office interviewed him about allegations of whistleblower retaliation. He soon after moved back into his previous position as an attorney adviser and decision writer on disability claims review cases, sources said.
Syrjanen, who sources say got into a yelling match with OIG agents, takes a substantial pay cut in his departure from the management position.
Meanwhile, a new administrative law judge, Ahavah Pyrtel, was sworn in Monday at the scandal-plagued Madison ODAR operation, according to multiple sources. There are now seven ALJs on the employee roster at an office that only had room for six judges, the insiders said.
Remaining on the roster is John Pleuss, the administrative law judge accused of sexual harassment.
“Is he still in the office? I can’t say,” one source said. If so, is the SSA paying Pleuss an annual salary of $167,359 (based on his pay grade) to do nothing?
SSA officials did not return Wisconsin Watchdog’s requests seeking comment.
Pleuss faces multiple allegations of sexual harassment of employees and making highly inappropriate comments about Social Security disability claimants.
More so, Pleuss is accused of making his rulings based on the physical attractiveness of claimants.
As Wisconsin Watchdog first reported in June, Pleuss in his case files described claimants as “attractive,” innocent-looking, “buxom.” In one case, he noted that a “young, white (woman)”appearing before him “looks like a man.”
“Obese, young, white (female) skimpy black top,” he wrote of another claimant.
“Very black, African looking (female),” the ALJ wrote, and parenthetically he added,“(actually a gorilla-like appearance).”
In one document, Pleuss wrote, “I’ll pay this lady when hell freezes over!”
In Pleuss’ “writing instructions” to his legal assistants, the judge approves a female claimant’s appeal for disability payments, calling her “credible.” He also goes on to write that “she looks like she was ‘rode hard and put away wet.’”
Pleuss has been removed from the hearing schedule, according to multiple sources.
Wisconsin Watchdog has now learned that former Madison Hearing Office Director Laura Hodorowicz, accused by whistleblowers of corruption, including bribery, intimidation and retaliation, was removed from her office in August after allegedly being caught interfering with the OIG investigation, according to one Social Security Administration insider.
When several agents were at the Madison ODAR attempting to interview staff members and managers, they found the office mostly empty, the source said. Staffers were taking days off and requesting work-from-home privileges on the days the investigators were present, according to multiple sources. When the agents finally demanded the employees return to the office, investigators learned Hodorowicz was allegedly advising staff not to cooperate with the investigation or telling them how to answer questions.
“They caught her dead to rights (interfering) and they removed her on the spot,” one source with knowledge of the situation said. “She has been out of the office ever since.”
But Hodorowicz remains employed with the agency, doing work for the Chicago region, according to sources.
Whistleblowers have accused Hodorowicz and others of tampering with potential evidence and with rewarding employees – or punishing them – depending on how they play the internal office game.
“This is a criminal offense,” one source said of the allegations of interference.
In June, Madison ODAR Chief Administrative Law Judge Debra Meachum sent an email noting the work directive she issued to Pleuss following Wisconsin Watchdog’s story on his file notes.
“His hearings for the next two weeks have been postponed or transferred. Effective immediately, and until further notice, he is directed not to hold hearings and not to sign decisions in Social Security Administration cases assigned to him,” Meachum wrote in an email obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog. “He is furthered (Sic) directed not to remove, delete, or alter any documents from his pending cases.”
There was concern then of Pleuss’ access to documents, according to the email.
OIG officials repeatedly have declined to comment on ongoing investigations.
Deborah Giesen, SSA’s regional attorney, is no longer in charge of personnel matters within the Chicago region. In her previous position, Giesen was supposed to protect employees from harassment and intimidation. Instead, whistleblowers allege, Giesen covered up for her long-time friend Hodorowicz and others engaged in alleged misconduct at the Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago-area ODAR offices, sources say.
It is no demotion for Giesen. While she loses the power she held at the Chicago office, the administrative law judge gets a huge bump in pay – from approximately $130,000 annually to at least $165,000 per year, according to federal records.
Meanwhile, the federal investigation goes on.
“I was told (by congressional staffers) that the more the OIG digs, the more they find,” one source said.
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