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Scandal-plagued federal agency looks to ‘act with integrity, honesty and respect’

By   /   December 29, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

MADISON, Wis. — The federal agency accused of widespread misconduct and whistleblower retaliation at several of its offices is now attempting to create an organizational culture built on several ethical pillars.

Last month, the Social Security Administration’s Office of Disability Adjudication and Review began a “conversation” with employees about the kind of culture the agency wants to promote in 2017.

Watchdog.org file photo

CULTURE CLUB: The Social Security Administration’s ODAR operations look to change the agency’s culture. SSA whistleblowers say it will take a lot to change a ‘culture of corruption.’

Facilitators of that conversation have gotten as far as forming a “word cloud” of principles in slide show format, according to an internal email obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog.

“Together, we have identified themes like; Service, Respect, Quality, Trust, Professionalism, Fairness, and Responsiveness, as the culture we want in ODAR,” the email states. “As you can see, public service is more than just providing an answer.  It’s how we serve people and their families during some of the most difficult times in their lives.”

Under the agency’s new “culture statement,” ODAR employees will have the following expectations of conduct:

Adhere to the highest professional standards

  • We put claimants first.
  • We treat all claimants fairly.
  • We act with integrity, honesty, and respect.

Remember public service comes first

  • We are caring and compassionate.
  • We understand our work dramatically affects claimants’ lives.
  • We are committed to public service.
  • We provide timely, quality service.
  • We protect claimants’ privacy.

That’s all a tough sell for Ron Klym, a long-time ODAR senior case technician who was fired in August, a couple of months after he went public with allegations of lengthy case delays in the system.

In May, Klym detailed the Milwaukee ODAR’s growing backlog of cases. Wisconsin Watchdog obtained records of some of the more extended delays.

Dozens of cases on appeal took more than 700 days to complete. One Green Bay case clocked in at 862 days. A Marquette request for benefits hit 1,064 days, and another was completed in 1,126 days.

“We had two clients who stopped in the office yesterday wondering what’s going on, and they have been waiting for 21 months,” Jessica Bray, partner at Upper Michigan Law in Escanaba, Mich., said in the May 4 investigative piece. Her colleague handled the noted cases that topped 1,000 days. “I sent a letter to the Milwaukee office, but I don’t think it’s going to do any good. Those cases haven’t even been assigned yet.”

In March, ODAR’s pending claims awaiting a hearing hit 1.1 million cases nationally.

Klym, who is supposed to be protected under federal whistleblower laws, still is waiting for answers on his grievances, and the status of federal investigations into what he says is a clear violation of claimants’ due process rights.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee opened an inquiry into the ODAR offices in Milwaukee and Madison more than six months ago. Sources say the inquiry goes on but the Social Security Administration has been less than helpful in supplying requested information.

Beyond service to its customers, ODAR says it wants to create a place where people want to work. And it all begins with “We,” according to the agency email:

  • We value all employees and promote diversity and inclusion.
  • We are inclusive and treat others as we want to be treated.
  • We exhibit strong work ethics everyday.
  • We are accountable for our actions.
  • We encourage innovative ideas and strategic action.
  • We do not tolerate bad behavior.
  • We report unethical and improper conduct.
  • We maintain a positive work environment and take public service seriously.

ODAR whistleblowers say the agency remains a closed-off workplace where ethics are no match for corruption, management is anything but accountable, unethical and improper conduct are routinely rewarded, and whistleblowing on waste, fraud and abuse is ignored and often punished.

In Madison, ODAR employees claim they have been disciplined for blowing the whistle on a “culture of corruption,” that includes management protection of an administrative law judge accused of sexual harassment.

According to multiple sources, ALJ John Pleuss has been under investigation on allegations of sexually harassing employees and making inappropriate comments about people who have appealed to him for Social Security benefits.

As Wisconsin Watchdog first reported in June, Pleuss, in his case files, described claimants as “attractive,” innocent-looking and “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, adding parenthetically, “(actually a gorilla-like appearance).”

Two Madison ODAR managers accused of intimidation, discrimination, retaliation, nepotism, fraud and other incidents of misconduct have been removed from their positions. But so has whistleblower Deborah Holland, who in August was walked out of her office by guards and stripped of her management position. She now works in special projects for SSA’s Region 5 headquarters in Chicago.

RELATED: Read Wisconsin Watchdog’s series, ‘Deadly Delays’

Another ODAR source claims her private veterans records have been compromised in retaliation for her complaints to federal investigators.

And a Chicago-area ODAR employee claims he has been discriminated against because of his sexual orientation. He complained and said he was greeted with more hostility and retaliation in his workplace.

A Social Security Administration spokesman has frequently said the agency cannot speak to personnel issues, but that SSA takes very seriously allegations of misconduct and retaliation.

Perhaps that’s what the “organizational culture” movement and the ODAR “culture statement” are all about.

ODAR sources say it will take more than mission statements and slogans, however, to change a culture of misconduct and fear at the government agency.

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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.