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Recent weeks bring shake-up at scandal-plagued Social Security offices

By   /   October 17, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 41 of 58 in the series Deadly Delays

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.

Watchdog.org file photo

INVESTIGATION CONTINUES: Whistleblowers at the Social Security Administration’s troubled appeals offices tell Wisconsin Watchdog that changes in management have been made in recent weeks.

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.”

 RELATED: ‘Culture of corruption and ‘cover-up’ alleged in Madison Social Security office

“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.

Part of 58 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’

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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.