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Social Security chief judge retiring amid cloud of scandal

By   /   October 26, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 43 of 61 in the series Deadly Delays

MADISON, Wis. – The head judge of the Social Security Administration’s disability claims review operations is stepping down.

Debra Bice, chief administrative law judge for SSA’s Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, announced last week that she will retire “later this year.”

Word of Bice’s looming departure came Friday in a memo to senior staff from SSA Acting Commissioner Carolyn Colvin.

“I would like to thank Judge Bice for her dedicated service as Chief Judge for the last five years and wish her a happy retirement,” Colvin wrote in the memo to senior staff.

It’s not clear whether Bice’s announcement has anything to do with the mounting allegations and federal investigations into widespread misconduct inside ODAR offices around the country.

AP file photo

CHIEF JUDGE RETIRES: Debra Bice, chief administrative law judge for SSA’s Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, leaves a troubled agency that is under federal investigation.

There has been a shake-up of late at ODAR’s Region 5 Chicago headquarters in the wake of a Senate committee inquiry and Inspector General probes into several offices – including the Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago suburb operations.

Multiple whistleblowers allege a culture of corruption and cover-up inside the offices, everything from sexual harassment and nepotism to bribery and retaliation.

SSA officials repeatedly have said they will not discuss personnel matters.

Bice’s tenure has included several scandals, not the least of which was the 2011 corruption case at the Huntington, W.V., ODAR in which Administrative Law Judge David B. Daugherty and others are accused of bilking taxpayers out of hundreds of millions of dollars in fraudulent disability payments. Daugherty and a claims attorney have been charged with multiple felonies, accused of working together on the alleged fraud scheme. Their court dates are pending.

The case also involves allegations of severe retaliation against whistleblowers, as do the investigations in the Chicago region.

The Social Security Disability Insurance program is one of the country’s largest entitlement programs, paying out $143.28 billion in 2015.

Bice has served the Social Security Administration in one capacity or another for nearly 40 years, currently overseeing some 160 hearing offices and approximately 10,000 employees, according to a congressional report.

“During a June 27, 2013, hearing of the Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Energy Policy, Health Care and Entitlements, two former SSA ALJs and two current SSA ALJs testified about their concerns of the agency’s stewardship of disability programs,” the June 2014 report noted.

As Wisconsin Watchdog first report last week in its continuing series into the SSA, two top administrative law judges at the Chicago headquarters recently announced their resignations.

Sherry D. Thompson, chief administrative law judge for SSA’s Region 5 in Chicago, and Assistant Regional Chief Administrative Law Judge John J. Rabaut intend to resign from their leadership positions at the end of the year, multiple sources told Wisconsin Watchdog.

On Tuesday, Thompson delivered her swan song to Region 5 staff, via email.

She said when she accepted the regional chief position in March 2011, her main coal was to “make this region one of the best in the nation with a focus on public service, quality and policy compliance.”

“Simply put, we have accomplished that mission,” Thompson wrote.

No they have not, said several ODAR insiders who spoke with Wisconsin Watchdog on Wednesday.

“Chicago has for a long time had a reputation as the most corrupt region of the country, and under her command the worst ODAR scandal since the Huntington, W.V., story has taken place,” said an SSA source with knowledge of the situation. “(Thompson) was personally aware of the problems in Madison and Milwaukee and the Chicago area offices and only intervened to protect the guilty parties instead of doing the right thing.”

“She has a long reputation for targeting people,” the source added. “Anyone who defies her is punished to the greatest extent she can arrange. That is a very different definition of success than the rest of us have.”

One source in SSA’s Atlanta region said Thompson presided over a hostile work environment when she briefly served as chief administrative law judge there. At best, the source said, the judge was “unresponsive” to the myriad complaints about supervisors in the office.

Wisconsin Watchdog attempted to contact Thompson at her office Wednesday. An administrative assistant said the judge was not in the office.

Gregory Senden, a representative for the government union that represents many SSA employees, sent an email to several ODAR staff members in the Chicago region last week advising of the changes.

“Hopefully the new leadership that is chosen will be effective and professional, and willing to work with AFGE (American Federation of Government Employees) to improve the morale of ODAR employees and improve service to the public that we serve,” Senden wrote in the email obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog.

The resignations followed Wisconsin Watchdog’s months-long investigation.

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.