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Johnson seeks GAO review of alleged Social Security ‘shell game’

By   /   January 19, 2017  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 51 of 61 in the series Deadly Delays

MADISON, Wis. – U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson wants to know whether the Social Security Administration is playing a “shell game” with its hefty disability benefits caseload, to the detriment of claimants’ due process rights.

The Oshkosh Republican, in his capacity as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, sent a letter this week to the Government Accountability Office asking for a review of the case-transfer practices of SSA’s Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, or ODAR.

“Transfers may be sensible in some circumstances to expedite case processing. However, if the practice is merely a shell game to artificially reduce an office’s APT (average processing time), the transfers may needlessly delay adjudications for claimants,” Johnson wrote to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro.

Johnson’s request is driven by due process concerns of former Milwaukee ODAR senior case technician Ron Klym. In the lead story of Wisconsin Watchdog’s investigative series, “Deadly Delays,” Klym provided documents showing hundreds of cases languishing in the system for nearly two years – in some cases, much longer.

AP file photo

SEEKING ANSWERS: U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee he chairs want the Government Accountability Office to look into the Social Security Administration’s practices of transferring claimant cases.

Average processing times from initial application to reconsideration, if the request is denied, can be more than a year.

Cases are then appealed to the administrative law judges at ODAR for review and final judgment.

Milwaukee’s average processing time is at 620 days.

Klym provided Wisconsin Watchdog with records showing cases from Green Bay, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and other smaller communities in the Milwaukee ODAR coverage area had even longer backlogs in recent years.

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.

“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., told Wisconsin Watchdog in May. 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.”

Klym said the long delays are impairing applicants’ civil rights. While those seeking Social Security disability benefits don’t have an unquestioned right to the payments, they do have a right to due process, he said.

“No one can guarantee the benefit. I know a case where someone has filed for a benefit 26 times,” Klym said in the May story. “It’s not the result, it’s the opportunity. If your opportunity has been waylaid, to paraphrase (George) Orwell, we’re all equal, but some are more equal. That’s a process issue.”

ODAR’s massive backlog, north of 1 million cases as of the last federal review, is no secret. But its policies on moving cases to other offices is not well known to the public.

Klym, who was fired in August after speaking out, describes the process as a “shell game.”

In May, he told Wisconsin Watchdog 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.

“They are wholesale shipping cases out,” the senior legal assistant said. The impression is that the offices are performing at a better rate than they actually are. “When you ship 1,000 cases to somewhere else, then you do an audit, it looks better.”

RELATED: Whistleblower alleges misconduct, incompetence in Social Security office

An SSA spokesman repeatedly has declined to comment on personnel matters but has acknowledged the “high average processing time for disability appeal hearings, and we are working to address the issue.”

“The Social Security disability program is an important resource for people with disabilities, and we work tirelessly every day to provide the best service possible,” said Doug Nguyen, communications director for the Social Security Administration’s Chicago region.

Klym said there are several people in the region who are aware of the practice.

Photo contributed

DUE PROCESS CLAIMS: Ron Klym, a long-time Social Security Administration employee, was fired shortly after going public with allegations of waste, fraud and abuse at the Milwaukee office.

Bray certainly is.

In the May investigative report, Bray said her colleague has seen some 50 Upper Peninsula-based cases shipped off to Oak Park, Ill. In 2004, she said, dozens of cases were sent to New Hampshire and Oakland, Calif. Cases in Green Bay were assigned to an office in New Mexico.

“I’m not sure why they are doing it, but from an attorney’s perspective, we say, ‘Thank goodness.’ At least we can get our clients a hearing,” Bray said.

Johnson wants to know exactly why the agency is doing it.

“While SSA has attempted to address the hearings backlog through its Compassionate and Responsive Service (CARES) plan, my office received allegations from an SSA employee that cases are being transferred between hearing offices prior to a routine audit in an effort to conceal the actual APT,” Johnson wrote the comptroller.

“Given the more than 1 million Americans who are waiting for SSA to process their cases, I request your assistance in determining the efficiency of ODAR’s case processing systems and hearing workload management,” Johnson’s letter states.  “Although GAO has offered Congress a helpful analysis of the hearing backlogs plaguing SSA in the past, it appears that little is known about how SSA moves around its hearing workload, and the effect of such workload-balancing initiatives on processing times and pending caseloads.”

The Senate committee wants to know:

1. What criteria does the Social Security Administration use to determine which cases to transfer and where to transfer them?

2. To what extent does the Social Security Administration transfer cases between offices, and what have been the effects on processing times and the number of pending cases nationwide, regionally, and by office?

3. How effective are the Social Security Administration’s procedures for managing and overseeing disability claims to ensure they are being processed according to program rules?

In June, the committee launched an inquiry into the Social Security Administration’s myriad whistleblower allegations of misconduct and retaliation. At the Madison ODAR facility, employees allege widespread corruption, intimidation and sexual harassment. In one case, and administrative law judge is accused of writing inappropriate comments about claimants, and deciding cases based on their appearance. That judge has since retired, as multiple federal investigations continue into the Madison office and others.

Klym, meanwhile, is awaiting an arbitration hearing next month on what he asserts was a wrongful dismissal, motivated by management animus and retaliation.

The whistleblower said he is hopeful an independent review will provide a big-picture view of the problems inside the troubled federal agency.

“I hope that the independent audit will have a clear and concise view that provides the Senate with the information it needs to go forward to a hearing,” Klym said.

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.