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Investigation finds abuse, law-breaking, no retaliation at Madison Social Security office

By   /   February 2, 2017  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 53 of 58 in the series Deadly Delays

MADISON, Wis. – Managers at a scandal-plagued Social Security Administration office committed time and attendance abuses, engaged in questionable hiring practices, and failed to provide proper oversight, according to a federal investigative report obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog.

Watchdog.org file photo

THE WHISTLEBLOWERS: Several Social Security Administration employees have told Wisconsin Watchdog of widespread misconduct and retaliation at the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review in Madison and Milwaukee .

SSA’s Office of the Inspector General “fact sheet” states the law was broken at the Madison Office of Disability Adjudication and Review and that managers held whistleblowers to significantly stricter standards than other staff.

Yet, the lengthy investigation seems to have found no acts of retaliation committed against the ODAR employees who brought widespread allegations of corruption – including fraud, nepotism, harassment and retaliation – to light.

“Most of the issues with the Madison HO (Hearing Office) identified through this investigation were attributable to poor management, inconsistent application of agency policies and lack of critical management oversight,” the report states.

But the problems go beyond “poor management” and lax oversight.

Misconduct encouraged

“Time and attendance abuses by the HOD (Hearing Office Director) and the GS (Group Supervisor) violated both law and regulations and set a tone for the office that misconduct by certain employees will be tolerated and, in some instances, encouraged,” the document asserts.

The synopsis of what sources say is expected to be a more comprehensive report, without naming names refers to Laura Hodorowicz, the hearing office director who in August was removed from the Madison office by armed guards and stripped of her management position, according to multiple sources. And it refers to Group Supervisor Wayne Gentz, who also was escorted out of the building and relieved of his management position.

Hodorowicz is accused of leading a “culture of corruption and cover-up” at the Madison office, a culture that whistleblowers allege “goes all the way to the top.”

Multiple employees have said the office director has been the subject of several investigations into her conduct in Madison, and when she held the same position in Milwaukee. Each time, they say, her cadre of loyalists testify on her behalf. And, sources say, they are rewarded for their loyalty.

Deborah Holland, a former Madison ODAR staff member and a whistleblower, sent a detailed report to the inspector general alleging that Hodorowicz led a corrupt system of based on punishment and rewards.  Holland asserts Hodorowicz’s openly hostile henchman, Gentz, has served as enforcer. Former Chief Administrative Law Judge Tom Springer long accepted misconduct because he benefited from the widespread nepotism in the office, Holland alleges. And former Chicago Regional Attorney Deborah Giesen, who was supposed to protect employees from harassment and intimidation, covered up for her long-time friend Hodorowicz, Holland claims.

No retaliation here?

The OIG fact sheet notes that after Holland disclosed the allegations to multiple sources, SSA took “personnel actions that adversely affected her, including the relocation of her duty station and reassignment of her duties.”

Administrators stripped Holland of her group supervisor position and had armed guards escort her out of the office.

Yet, according to the OIG, Holland was not retaliated against.

The same apparently goes for Celia Machelle Keller, the lead case technician who lost teleworking privileges soon after she was compelled to testify in an office sexual harassment case. Keller says she was harassed, ostracized and routinely punished after she blew the whistle on multiple incidents of alleged misconduct.

“The agency countered with evidence that all of its actions were legitimate, non-retaliatory and consistent with business necessity,” the fact sheet notes. SSA administrators deny specifically targeting Keller.

But at the same time, the fact sheet states: “We did not substantiate any clear instances of reprisal against Holland and Keller; however, we know that both employees were held in strict interpretations of all agency policies, while other employees, including other GS (Gentz) in question, were not.”

That would appear to be disparate treatment, and that would be a violation of federal policy and the law.

Photo by ODAR

TROUBLED OFFICE: The Office of Disability Adjudication and Review is responsible for hearing claimant cases on Social Security disability benefits. The offices in Madison and Milwaukee have been accused of widespread misconduct and due process violations.

Hiring manipulation

Holland’s report to the IG, as noted in Wisconsin Watchdog’s investigative series, “Deadly Delays,” notes that nepotism was a huge problem in the Madison office.

Hodorowicz hired the adult children of Bill Allen, an ODAR employee who refused to testify against her in a hostile work environment claim, a staff member with inside information told Wisconsin Watchdog last year. Office records also confirm the hirings. Following an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint, the supervisor’ son, Jason Allen, provided testimony helpful to Hodorowicz’s cause; Hodorowicz then hired Jason Allen’s wife, the source said. And Hodorowicz hired the daughter of a close friend. The wife of Gentz, Hodorowicz’s chief ally, also was brought in to do administrative work. As were the family members of administrative law judges.

“She hired those people in violation of hiring rules. Rather than hiring disabled veterans or other qualified applicants, (Hodorowicz) manipulated the hiring rules to hire employee family members as rewards,” the source said.

The OIG found the same.

“Hiring decisions in the Madison (Hearing Office) were largely unchecked by ODAR management, leaving (Hodorowicz) free to populate the office with friends and family members of current employees, increasing perceptions of favoritism and diminishing employee morale and focus on the agency’s public service mission,” the fact sheet stated. “Hiring practices in the Madison HO, which often included the manipulation of vacancy announcements to achieve a desired end, attempted to dissuade applicants from pursuing certain positions, which ran afoul of protections intended for all candidates for federal positions.”

The investigation did not substantiate allegations that the hearing office director offered financial compensation in exchange for employees’ silence concerning misconduct, according to the fact sheet. But Madison ODAR employees “reported a divisive office where civility was in short supply and compliance with agency policies was sporadic.”

No ‘systemic biases’

Finally, investigators found no evidence that Administrative Law Judge John Pleuss engaged in “systemic biases,” despite the fact that Pleuss’ hearing notes referred to claimants as attractive,” innocent-looking, and “buxom.” In one case, he noted that a “young, white (woman)”appearing before him “looks like a man.” And the judge characterized an African American woman as “Very black, “actually a gorilla-like appearance.”

“The ALJs use of inappropriate hearing notes and writing instructions, known to many employees and managers for years, went unreported and unaddressed until the behavior was brought to the attention of the media,” the report notes.

RELATED: Social Security judge demanded $65,000 expanded bathrooms

Wisconsin Watchdog first made Pleuss’ notes public in a story last June.

OIG adds that Pleuss retired at the end of 2016. At present, the administrative law judge is entitled to the generous retirement benefits afforded by the federal government – at taxpayer expense.

Senate action

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin this week sent a letter to SSA Acting Commissioner Nancy A. Berryhill, urging the new administrator to “take appropriate action to ensure the hearing office in Madison and each of the Social Security Administration offices in Wisconsin are safe places to work for employees and provide high-quality service to taxpayers.”

“According to OIG, problems at the Madison hearing office are attributed to poor management, inconsistent application Social Security’s policies and a lack of management oversight,” Baldwin wrote. “In this environment, hiring decisions were largely unchecked; time and attendance abuses violated both law and regulations; and the agency took action against whistleblowers who disclosed internal corruption and a complete deterioration of work setting.”

“Moreover, an administrative law judge’s use of racist and sexist descriptions of claimants in hearing notes and writing instructions went unreported and unaddressed for years, despite managers being aware of his abhorrent behavior,” Baldwin added.

Baldwin seeks assurances from the agency that the Madison office will get its act together and that the whistleblowers will be protected moving forward.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, chaired by U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, in June launched an inquiry into the ODAR offices in Madison and Milwaukee. A committee official said staff is reviewing the inspector general report and supporting materials and expects to be brief by the IG’s office in the coming days.

In her message last week to agency employees, Berryhill asked that SSA employees continue to focus on the agency’s mission.

“Despite any changes that may occur, our focus remains the same – providing service that is efficient, compassionate and balanced while protecting the integrity of our programs,” the acting commissioner wrote.

What happens next in Madison is not clear.

The OIG did not respond to a request for comment, but it has delivered copies of the report to the Social Security Administration, according to the fact sheet. OIG also sent a copy of investigative records to the federal Office of Special Counsel.

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.